Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost (5 October 2014)



  • Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20 & Psalm 19 (or Isaiah 5:1-7 & Psalm 80:7-15)
  • Philippians 3:4b-14
  • Matthew 21:33-46

First Reading: The Decalogue

Those communities using the Revised Common Lectionary will be reading the story of Sinai, where the divine Torah is given to the covenant community and especially encapsulated in the Ten Words, or Decalogue.

The commentary by Nahum Sarna in the JPS edition of the Torah, offers the following observations:

The arrival at Sinai inaugurates the culminating stage in the process of forging Israel’s national identity and spiritual destiny. The shared experiences of bondage and liberation are to be supplemented and given ultimate meaning by a great communal encounter with God. Henceforth, Israel is to be a people inextricably bound to God by a covenantal relationship. The Hebrew term for a covenant is the seminal biblical word berit. The Christian designation of sacred Scripture as “testament” reflects this understanding of the covenant concept as the controlling idea of biblical faith; “testament” is a now largely obsolete word for the written record of a compact.
In the ancient world, relationships between individuals as well as between states were ordered and regulated by means of covenants, or treaties. Numerous examples of such instruments of international diplomacy have survived, deriving from various parts of the ancient Near East. These divide into two basic categories: (1) a parity treaty, where the contracting parties negotiate as equals; (2) a suzerain-vassal treaty, where one party transparently imposes its will on the other.
A study of these documents, particularly those of the latter type, leaves no doubt as to the influence of the ancient Near Eastern treaty patterns on the external, formal, literary aspects of the biblical berit. The affinities are to be expected. In order for the berit to be intelligible to the Israelites, it made sense to structure it according to the accepted patterns of the then universally recognized legal instruments.
The Decalogue and its contents are, however, in a class by themselves. The idea of a covenantal relationship between God and an entire people is unparalleled. Similarly unique is the setting of the covenant in a narrative context. It is the latter that imparts to the covenant its meaning and significance; the covenant would be devalued were the link between them to be severed. Another major and original feature is the manner in which the content of the berit embraces the internal life of the “vassal” by regulating individual behavior and human relationships. Such a preoccupation with social affairs is beyond the scope and intent of all other ancient treaties, whose sole concern is with the external affairs of the vassal.
The uniqueness of the Decalogue notwithstanding, it is undeniable that many of its provisions are closely paralleled in the wisdom and ethical literature of the ancient world. Several other ancient law collections rest upon foundations of ethical and moral principles of justice and morality. Sins of a moral and ethical nature, such as bearing false witness, disrespect of parents, theft, adultery, and murder, are all listed in the magic texts from Mesopotamia known as the Shurpu series. The “Declaration of Innocence,” located in chapter 125 of the Egyptian “Book of the Dead,” is formulated in negative terms and clearly testifies to the reality of positive moral ideals. It is obvious that the great civilizations of the Nile and Mesopotamian valleys could not have functioned without a commitment to a set of ethical ideals and principles of morality.
What is revolutionary about the Decalogue in Israel is not so much its content as the way in which these norms of conduct are regarded as being expressions of divine will, eternally binding on the individual and on society as a whole. Both are equally answerable to the deity, which was not the case in pagan cultures.
Another extraordinary Israelite innovation is the amalgamation of what in modern times would be classified separately as “religious” and “secular,” or social, obligations. This distinction is meaningless in a biblical context, where both categories alike are accepted as emanating from God. Social concern, therefore, is rooted in the religious conscience.
Still another outstanding feature of the Decalogue is the apodictic nature of its stipulations—the simple, absolute, positive and negative imperatives are devoid of qualification and mostly presented without accompanying penalties or threats of punishment. The idea is that the covenant is a self-enforcing document. The motivation for fulfilling its stipulations is not to be fear of retribution but the desire to conform to divine will, reinforced by the spiritual discipline and moral fiber of the individual.

Five + Five

The two sets of five “sayings” that captured the essence of the covenant obligations were perhaps related to the ten fingers on the two hands of a person: five for God, five for others. In their primitive form, the demands of the Decalogue may literally have been 10 curt sayings: No-idols, No_Murder, No_Adultery, etc.

The traditional number ten, like the well-attested preference for twelve in both Jewish and Christian texts, seems to have survived despite the presence of at least eleven (and by some medieval Jewish accounts, thirteen) commandments in these verses. (In a similar fashion, “The Twelve” survived as a special apostolic term in early Christianity despite the significance of additional apostles, including Paul and Barnabas.) The tension between the desire to identify ten specific commands and the presence of a greater number of commands, is seen in the different ways that various communities have divided the Decalogue:

[1] 20:3 you shall have no other gods before me.
[2] 20:4 You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.
[3] 20:5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, 20:6 but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.
[4] 20:7 You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.
[5] 20:8 Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 20:9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 20:10 But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work–you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 20:11 For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.
[6] 20:12 Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.
[7] 20:13 You shall not murder.
[8] 20:14 You shall not commit adultery.
[9] 20:15 You shall not steal.
[10] 20:16 You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.
[11] 20:17 You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.

The numbers in square brackets identify the eleven commandments that are found in this text, as well as in its parallel in Deuteronomy 5. There is also an entirely different version of the “Ten Commandments” to be found in Exodus 34 although they are said to be a replica of the first set of stone tablets destroyed by Moses in a fit of rage.

Different religious communities combine two of the first few commandments in various ways to achieve the desired number of ten:

In the JEWISH tradition, vs. 2 is considered to be the first commandment, while vss. 3-6 are combined to form a single commandment prohibiting false gods, including idols (both their manufacture and their use). In the ROMAN CATHOLIC AND LUTHERAN traditions, following St Augustine in the ancient church, vss. 2-6 are combined into a single commandment, while splitting vs. 17 to form two separate commandments:

9. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; and
10. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, …

ANCIENT PATRISTIC sources, as well as most PROTESTANT CHURCHES, typically combined vss. 2-3 to form a commandment demanding exclusive loyalty to YHVH, while vss. 4-6 are also combined to form a single prohibition on idolatry.

Some CONTEMPORARY SCHOLARS have suggested that the series did not originally include the commandment concerning honor of father and mother, and at one stage may have been as follows:

1. No god/s but YHVH
2. Make no images
3. No worshipping of idols
4. No false swearing …
5. Keep the Sabbath holy …

6. No murder …
7. No adultery …
8. No stealing …
9. No false witness …
10. No coveting

If this is correct, then the original tradition had five duties to God and fives duties to the community, with respect for parents being a later addition and requiring some compression of the preceding injunctions.

The heart of torah

In subsequent Jewish tradition the 613 commandments revealed to Moses were reduced to smaller sets and ultimately (according to the Talmud) to a single command: Seek me and live:

Six hundred and thirteen commandments were given to Moses, three hundred and sixty-five negative ones, corresponding to the days of the solar year, and two hundred forty-eight positive commandments, corresponding to the parts of man’s body…
David came and reduced them to eleven: A Psalm of David [Psalm 15] Lord, who shall sojourn in thy tabernacle, and who shall dwell in thy holy mountain? (i) He who walks uprightly and (ii) works righteousness and (iii) speaks truth in his heart and (iv) has no slander on his tongue and (v) does no evil to his fellow and (vi) does not take up a reproach against his neighbour, (vii) in whose eyes a vile person is despised but (viii) honors those who fear the Lord. (ix) He swears to his own hurt and changes not. (x) He does not lend on interest. (xi) He does not take a bribe against the innocent,…
Isaiah came and reduced them to six [Isaiah 33:25–26]: (i) He who walks righteously and (ii) speaks uprightly, (iii) he who despises the gain of oppressions, (iv) shakes his hand from holding bribes, (v) stops his ear from hearing of blood (vi) and shuts his eyes from looking on evil, he shall dwell on high.
Micah came and reduced them to three [Micah 6:8]: It has been told you, man, what is good and what the Lord demands from you, (i) only to do justly, and (ii) to love mercy, and (iii) to walk humbly before God…
Isaiah came again and reduced them to two [Isaiah 56:1]: Thus says the Lord, (i) keep justice and (ii) do righteousness.
Amos came and reduced them to a single one, as it is said, For thus says the Lord to the house of Israel, Seek Me and live.
Habakkuk further came and based them on one, as it is said [Habakkuk 2:4], But the righteous shall live by his faith.
— Talmud, b. Makkot, 24(a) [cited in Jacob Neusner, The Way of Torah, 22]

Gospel: The Tenants & the Rejected Stone

The Tenants

The Jesus Seminar considered this parable on more than one occasion, with some movement in the voting outcomes between sessions:

Thom 65-66
Thom 65
Thom 66
Mark 12:1-11
Mark 12:1-8

Mark 12:9-11
Matt 21:33-43
Matt 21:33-39
Matt 21:40-43
Luke 20:9-18
Luke 20:9-15a
Luke 9:15b-18
Barn 6:4a

The commentary in The Five Gospels (p. 101) describes this parable as “the classic example of the predilection of the early Christian community to recast Jesus’ parables as allegorical stories.” The Seminar votes reflect a view that Thomas preserves a version of this parable closer to the original form.

John Dominic Crossan [Historical Jesus, p. 351] proposes that this saying, along with its related saying 47 The Rejected Stone [1/3], originated as a story featuring a vineyard owner’s son but told with no self-reference to Jesus. In the subsequent tradition the story was allegorized, with the story then developing in either of two directions. In the Similitudes we see the story transformed in a positive way, with the tenants and the son jointly inheriting the vineyard. Alternatively, if the death of the son was taken as an allegory for the death of Jesus then there needed to be some reference to the resurrection. Crossan suggests this was achieved by combining the story of the tenants with the saying about the rejected stone.

He then asks what the original form of this parable may have meant when spoken by Jesus:

It is not impossible, first of all, that Jesus could have told the parable about his own fate, as a metaphorical vision of his own possible death. After the execution of John, and in the context of what he himself was doing, such a prophecy required no transcendental information. Indeed, if the idea never crossed Jesus’ mind, he was being very naive indeed. I find that explanation less plausible, however, because I cannot see how its narrative logic coincides with the situation of Jesus himself. How, in terms of Jesus’ own life, would the tenants acquire the vineyard by his murder? The story, on the other hand, is absolutely understandable as spoken to peasants who know all about absentee landlords and what they themselves have thought, wished, and maybe even planned. I am inclined, then, but somewhat tentatively, to read it as one of those places where the political situation breaks most obviously on the surface of the text. Presuming that the original parable ended with the son’s death, how would a Galilean peasant audience have responded? May like this. Some: they did right. Others: but they will not get away with it. Some: he got what he deserved. Others: but what will the father do now? Some: that is the way to handle landlord. Others: but what about the soldiers?

Gerd Lüdemann [Jesus, pp. 81f] discounts the parable as an allegory based on Isaiah 5:1-7 and rejects attempts (such as Crossan above) to identify an original version that could be traced to Jesus:

As the tradition can be derived from the community, its degree of authenticity is nil. But it is often argued in favor of the historical authenticity of the passage that the imagery (e.g. the rebellious mood of tenants against the owner) is well-attested for the world of Jesus. However, this plausibility must not seduce us into historical conclusions.

The Rejected Stone

In the Testament of Solomon, a Christian text dated somewhere in the first three centuries of the Common Era, we find the Legend of the Immovable Cornerstone:

/22:1/ The king of Arabia, Adarkes, sent a letter containing the following: “King of Arabia, Adarkes, to King Solomon, greetings. I have heard about the wisdom which has been granted to you and that, being a man from the Lord, there has been given to you understanding about all the spirits of the air, the earth, and beneath the earth. /2/ There still exists a spirit in Arabia. Early in the morning a fresh gust of wind blows until the third hour. Its terrible blast even kills man and beast and no (counter-)blast is ever able to withstand the demon. /3/ I beg you, therefore, since this spirit is like a wind, do something wise according to the wisdom which has been given to you by the Lord your God and decide to send out a man who is able to bring it under control. /4/ Then we shall belong to you, King Solomon, I and all my people and all my land; and all Arabia will be at peace if you carry out this act of vengeance for us. /5/ Consequently, we implore you, do not ignore our prayer and do become our lord for all time. farewell my lord, as ever.”
/6/ After I, Solomon, read this letter, I folded it, gave it to my servant, and said to him, “After seven days, remind me of this letter.” /7/ So Jerusalem was being built and the Temple was moving towards completion. Now there was a gigantic cornerstone which I wished to place at the head of the corner to complete the Temple of God. /8/ All the artisans and all the demons who were helping came to the same (location) to bring the stone and mount it at the end of the Temple, but they were not strong enough to budge it.
/9/ When seven days had passed and I remembered the letter of the king of Arabia, I summoned my servant boy and said to him, “Load up your camel, take a leather flask and this seal, /10/ and go off to Arabia to the place where the spirit is blowing. Then take hold of the wineskin and (place) the ring in front of the neck of the flask (against the wind). /11/ As the flask is being filled with air, you will discover that it is the demon who is filling it up. Carefully, then, tie up the flask tightly and when you have sealed (it) with the ring, load up the camel and come back here. Be off, now, with blessings.”
/12/ Then the boy obeyed the orders and went to Arabia. Now the men from the region doubted whether it was possible to bring the evil spirit under control. /13/ Nonetheless, before dawn the house servant got up and confronted the spirit of the wind. He put the flask on the ground and placed the ring on (its mouth). (The demon) entered the flask and inflated it. /14/ Yet the boy stood firm. He bound up the mouth of the flask in the name of the Lord Sabaoth and the demon stayed inside the flask./15/ To prove that the demon had been overcome, the boy remained three days and, (when) the spirit did not blow any longer, the Arabs concluded that he had really trapped the spirit.
/16/ Then he loaded the flask on the camel. The Arabs sent the boy on his way with gifts and honors, shouting praises to God, for they were left in peace. Then the boy brought in the spirit and put it in the foremost part of the Temple. /17/ The following day I, Solomon, went into the Temple (for) I was very worried about the cornerstone. (Suddenly,) the flask got up, walked for seven steps, and fell down on its mouth before me. /18/ I was amazed that (even though the demon was entrapped in) the flask, he had the power to walk around, and I ordered him to get up. Panting, the flask arose and stood up. /19/ Then I asked him, saying, “Who are you?” From inside the spirit said, “I am a demon called Ephippas (and I live) in Arabia.”
/20/ I said to him, “By what angel are you thwarted?” He said, “By the one who is going to be born of a virgin and be crucified by the Jews.”
/23:1/ Then I said to him, “What can you do for me?” he responded, “I am able to move mountains, to carry houses from one place to another, and to overthrow kings.” /2/ I said to him, “If you have the power, lift this stone into the beginning of the corner of the Temple.” But he responded, “I will raise not only this stone, King; but, with (the aid of) the demon who lives in the Red Sea, (I will) also (lift up) the pillar of air (which is) in the Red Sea and you shall set it up where you wish.”
/3/ When he had said these things, he went in underneath the stone, lifted it up, went up the flight of steps carrying the stone, and inserted it into the end of the entrance of the Temple. /4/ I, Solomon, being excited, exclaimed, “Truly the Scripture which says, It was the stone rejected by the builders that became the keystone, has now been fulfilled,” and so forth. [Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, 1, 984-85]

Jesus Database

  • 046 The Tenants -(1) GThom. 65; (2) Mark 12:1-9,12 = Matt 21:33-41,43-46 = Luke 20:9-16,19; (3) Herm. Sim. 5.2:4-7.
  • 047 The Rejected Stone – (1) GThom. 66; (2) Mark 12:10-11 = Matt 21:42 = Luke 20: 17-18; (?3a) Eph 2:20*; (3b) Acts 4:11*; (3c) 1Pet 2:7*; (4a) Barn 6:4; (?4b) Justin Martyr, Dial, 100*; (4c) Irenaeus, Against Heresies, III.5*; (4d) Irenaeus, Against Heresies, IV.33.1*; (4e) Irenaeus, Against Heresies, IV.36*; (4f) Tertullian, Against Marcion, IV.35*; (4g) Tertullian, Against Marcion, V.17*; (4h) Hippolytus, Refutation, V.2*; (4i) Cyprian, Treatises, IV.35*; (4j) Cyprian, Treatises, XII.2.16*; (4k) ApostConst, VII.17*; (4l) Origen, Against Celsus, VIII.19*; (4m) Origen, CommJohn, 23*. [* indicates the item is not in Crossan’s inventory]

Liturgies and Prayers

For liturgies and sermons each week, shaped by a progressive theology, check Rex Hunt’s web site

Other recommended sites include:

Music Suggestions

See the following sites for recommendations from a variety of contemporary genre:

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