Summary: Introduction to Sermon Series on the 10 Commandments: Why God gave them, what they say about God, what they say about people.
As many of you know, I am a major fan of murder mysteries. I’ve excused the habit for years because Dorothy Sayers approved of them (She’s the woman who wrote the Lord Peter Wimsey mystery stores, you may have seen them on PBS? She was also a rather brilliant theologian, and a friend of C.S. Lewis.) And on top of that, a couple of weeks ago the book reviewer for the Christian newsmagazine World reviewed a new mystery called Publish & Perish. He said that "the mystery genre is moral in itself, for in it that which was hidden is made plain, justice is achieved, and events often turn on a simple dispensation of grace." It’s always comforting when a respectable source approves your habits.
They’re also wonderful sources for sermon illustrations, because of the enormous variety of under-handed shenanigans that go on. Dick Francis, the former British jockey whose mysteries all have some-thing to do with horses, is one of my favorite authors. The hero of his book Risk is a an accountant who does the books for the jockeys, trainers, veterinarians and feed merchants in a British racing town, and in the course of some hair-raising adventures he uncovers a massive fraud. The criminal is a highly successful, widely respected, perfectly ordinary sort of chap who has the misfortune to run a training stable on behalf of absentee owners. He begins by skimming off the top of the profits, and when he doesn’t get caught expands his activities until he’s in so deep that he eventually attempts murder to cover it all up. His conscience doesn’t bother him, if it ever did, because he’s convinced himself that he deserves everything he can get, after all, who’s done all the work? He has a sort of squatters rights mentality, you know, finders keepers and all that.
And as I was reading this I thought, "I’ve heard this plot before," and sure enough, Jesus told the same story, in the book of Luke.
Luke 20:9-14 And he began to tell the people this parable: "A man planted a vineyard, and let it out to tenants, and went into another country for a long while. When the time came, he sent a servant to the tenants, that they should give him some of the fruit of the vineyard; but the tenants beat him, and sent him away empty-handed. And he sent another servant; him also they beat and treated shamefully, and sent him away empty-handed. And he sent yet a third; this one they wounded and cast out. Then the owner of the vineyard said, ’What shall I do? I will send my beloved son; it may be they will respect him.’ But when the tenants saw him, they said to themselves, ’This is the heir; let us kill him, that the inheritance may be ours.’
Two thousand years ago people were doing exactly the same thing that Dick Francis was writing about in a murder mystery. Now, mind you, Jesus was telling this as a parable to illustrate the way people had been behaving toward God, not as a current news flash. But his listeners understood it because it was exactly the same sort of thing that went on all the time.
It shouldn’t come as any surprise to us. People don’t change. It shouldn’t have come as any surprise to them, either, because Moses had already warned the Israelites against behaving like that over a thousand years before that. God knew, and Moses knew, and we know, that we never completely out-grow the 3-year-old reflex response, "Mine!" Have any of you seen the Toddler’s Bill of Rights? I can’t remember all of the details, but it includes, "It I saw it first, it’s mine," and "If I ever touched it, it’s mine," and "If I want to play with it, it’s mine." Some people never grow out of it; they just learn to hide it better. Giving credit where credit is due goes very much against the human grain. All we have to do is let a little time pass, and then we arrange our memories so that the story comes out the way we want it to, from the fish that got away to the impossible virtues of the rejected suitor. All we have to do is a little creative forgetting.
"Take heed", said Moses, "lest you forget YHWH your God, by not keeping his commandments and his ordinances and his statutes... lest, when you have eaten and are full, and have built goodly houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks multiply, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, then your heart be lifted up, and you forget YHWH your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage, who led you through the great and terrible wilderness, with its fiery serpents and scorpions and thirsty ground where there was no water, who brought you water out of the flinty rock, who fed you in the wilderness with manna which your fathers did not know, that he might humble you and test you, to do you good in the end. Beware lest you say in your heart, ’My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’ Deut 8:11-17