08 October 2023

The issue of legalism – of prioritising law over love – may be thought as a “spiritual” problem only. However, as we allow this week’s Lectionary to speak, we discover that the way the law is used in both so-called “sacred” and “secular” contexts can be equally life-giving and/or equally destructive. The challenge is to allow the law its proper place, and use it to lead us to life, while ensuring that the same gift of life is available to all.

May we our worship lead us beyond legalism into a life that clearly demonstrates the power of the law of love.

Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20: God speaks God’s commandments to the people of Israel who are terrified by the thunder, lightning, smoke and trumpet sounds. They ask Moses to speak to God on their behalf, because of their fear, but Moses reassures them that God is simply keeping the people in awe so they don’t sin.
OR Isaiah 5:1-7: A prophecy of judgement in which the people of Israel and Judah are likened to a vineyard which God tends and cares for, but which produces rotten grapes instead of good ones.

Psalm 19: A psalm celebrating creation which proclaims God’s glory, and God’s law which enlightens brings reward to those who keep it.
OR Psalm 80:7-15: A plea to God to come and save the vine that God planted, but which has now had its wall torn down, and is vulnerable and open to destruction.

Philippians 3:4b-14: Paul, who has good reason for confidence under the law because of his upbringing and observance, values only the righteousness which he has received through Christ, and through which he knows the power of Christ’s resurrection and participates in Christ’s sufferings.

Matthew 21:33-46: Jesus tells a story about a farmer who cultivates a vineyard and then rents it to tenant farmers, who, instead of giving the farmer his share of the fruit when it’s due, kills his servants and then the farmer’s son. In this way, he explains, God’s reign is being given to those who will produce fruit.

This week is a challenging follow on from last week, and may, in some ways, appear to contradict it. Where last week’s emphasis was on inclusivity, and the Living Water of God that flows into every nook and cranny, this week the central image is the Law, and on how some are excluded from God’s life because they have allowed the Law to become stagnant, repressive and legalistic. In the Exodus reading, the Moses journey continues, with the Israelites receiving God’s Law. But, because of their fear, they choose a lifeless Law, passed on to them second-hand through Moses, over a relationship to which the Law is simply a doorway. Here the Law ends up being an end in itself, rather than a means to an end – intimacy with God. In the Isaiah reading, which connects with the Gospel, the Song of the Vineyard demonstrates what happens when God’s people fail to live out the life that the Law is supposed to bring, and fail to find real relationship with God and one another. The fruit they produce, in this case, is rotten, rather than good and life-giving. In Philippians Paul, who could celebrate his righteousness under the law, express his disregard for legalistic purity, and embraces, rather, the life of Christ – both his resurrection and his suffering – for it is in Christ that he knows true life, and true connection with God and others. In Jesus’ parable, it is the people of the law – the religious leaders, who are represented by the wicked tenants. Their inability to recognise their place as custodians of God’s vineyard, and their unwillingness to receive the “farmer’s son” reveals how their devotion to the law has robbed them and others of life, and has led them into a destructive legalism. In response to this, the Psalm offer us two songs that are helpful expressions of our longing for God, and our desire to keep God’s law in its rightful place. In Psalm 19 God’s law, like creation, is shown to be simply a way that God is revealed, and is a gift that brings life – which is as it should be. In Psalm 80 the response of grief and prayer for the vulnerable vineyard that has failed to produce fruit guides us away from judgement and into intercession for those (including ourselves) who make of the law an idol and end up producing fruit that is contrary to God’s life and God’s reign. So, here at last, we recognise that this week is not a contradiction of last week, but a development of it. The only ones who end up excluded are those who use the law to exclude others. The result is less a judgement than a consequence. When Christ seeks to include all, those who insist on excluding some, end up only excluding themselves. What a tragedy that the Law, which is designed to bring life, should become such a destructive idol for some – and what a warning against any tendency to legalism we might find in ourselves.

GLOBAL APPLICATION: The issue of legalism may, at first glance, seem to be a purely religious one, with little relevance to wider society where the rule of law is usually held up as the only basis for organising society. However, on closer inspection some fascinating insights may emerge. To begin with the law, whether “secular” or “sacred” is never intended to be an end in itself. It is always only meant to be a way to a life of justice, peace, equity and community. When the law does its work well, people are encouraged to live considerately and respectfully, and to abide by principles that seek the common good. However, the law is too easily recruited to the very agendas that it is supposed to protect us against. One example might be the aggressive way that copyright law is being enforced in the face of changing ways of consuming media and the arts. In a system where wealthy executives control intellectual property and make a lot of money out of it, there is little will to change to embrace new realities with the result that ordinary citizens are viewed as criminals, and even artists are prevented from benefiting from their own work when it has come under the control of powerful corporations. In similar ways, political lobby groups in industries as diverse as power, food production, pharmaceuticals and international trade ensure that lawmakers become their allies in the accumulation of wealth and the criminalising of anyone who would get in the way of their quest for profit. Again, lists upon lists of examples could be given, but you need look no further than the political influence exerted by petroleum companies, or the laws that control the use of patented seeds. The net result is that the law, which should have brought life, equity, justice and the common good, has been manipulated to favour the powerful, to pamper the rich and to keep the poor and unconnected in check. The vineyard is now truly producing rotten fruit, and those who point this out are often mocked, persecuted or even arrested. And this reality exists in so-called “developed” and “civilised” countries as much as those that are considered to be under the control of “tyrants”. In the face of this, followers of Christ are called to speak the truth, to uphold the values of life, peace and justice, and stand against the law when it becomes the servant of evil and oppression. Such was the prophetic task of the Church in apartheid South Africa. Such remains the prophetic task of the Church in a world of fossil fuel dependence, widespread poverty, AIDS, war and globalisation.

LOCAL APPLICATION: The legalistic application of law is a destructive influence in relationships from families to faith communities. The parable of the vineyard is a powerful description of what this looks like. Legalistic people, who believe they control the “vineyard” (which can be truth, a particular community, a particular ministry, a family or a person), impose strict regulations on it, sucking all the “fruit” (energy, love, connection, wisdom, giftedness etc.) out of it and leave it in the position that it is only able to produce fruit that is rotten. Or, alternatively, they leave the “vineyard” in a situation where its fruit is available only for them. And, when others try to bring insight, healing or correction into this situation, the legalists react aggressively, using the law (or their version of it) as a club with which to beat all opponents. Such abuse is all too common in our churches and in the homes of those who claim to follow “the Bible”. It’s another situation in which the law (or the Bible) which is intended as a doorway to life, ends up becoming an end in itself, and robs life. It is this abusive use of the law that leads husbands to force their wives to “submit” or parents to force their children into terrified adherence. It is this abusive use of the law that leads pastors to control their congregations through threats and self-righteous judgements. And it is this abusive use of the law that leads Christians to judge and condemn those with whom they disagree – even those whom they should consider to be their brothers and sisters in Christ. Whenever law becomes the focus of any relationship or community, people end up lifeless and battered. Ultimately the only “righteousness” that has value is that which Paul speaks about – the righteousness which is given to us as a gift in Christ, and which draws us into the life and joy of Christ’s resurrection, even as it leads us to serve and love others with cross-embracing self-giving. From another perspective, the temptation is always there for us to choose law over the unpredictable, scary journey into intimacy with God. Like the Israelites, we may find dealing with God too difficult or frightening, and so we may settle for rituals or traditions which lose their ability to point us to God because we make them idols to replace God. Ultimately, the truth we must face this week is that whenever we choose law over relationship – with God or with one another – we lose life, and we become destructive, like vineyards that produce only rotten fruit.

How Many?
Help Me, Jesus
Law And Love
Quiet Proclamation

Hymn Suggestions:
If Thou But Suffer God To Guide Thee
Where Cross The Crowded Ways Of Life
Out Of The Darkness (Link to YouTube video)
You Are
Creation’s King (Link to YouTube video)

A Liturgy Of Creation And Communion

Video Suggestions:
Exodus 20
Rules vs. Grace
Song Of The Vineyard