Text: Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20
They are perhaps the ten best known rules out of the entire Bible… or at least in name they are anyway. They have two epic films named after them. They have been used inappropriately as a theological battering ram by some, dismissed as ancient and irrelevant by others. These days, any mention of them provokes a reaction in people, be it positive or negative… but when the Ten Commandments come up, people’s teeth are sure to be set on edge.
But does it have to be that way? They were never intended to be the kind of bludgeon that the religious right in the States has made them to be. Contrary to what they might tell you, only three of the Ten Commandments actually carries any legal weight these days: do not murder, do not steal, and don’t lie under oath (that’s the false witness one). As the late comedian George Carlin rightly pointed out, in North American society, coveting or being envious of someone else’s stuff is the cornerstone of a market economy… so maybe we need to revisit them, take a closer look at these life rules… because they are more than simply a list of do’s and don’ts. There’s a profound spirituality that underlies them…
This may come as a bit of a surprise to some, but the Ten Commandments appear twice in the Bible: first in this morning’s reading from Exodus, and the second is in the early part of Deuteronomy. They are considered to be the cornerstone of the first five books of the Law, central to Hebrew Scripture. Even in the English language, they have their impact. Any time we say something is or isn’t “carved in stone” we are reminded of the stone tablets that are often associated with the Commandments. Yet as much as another cliché comes from them, the Ten Commandments didn’t simply drop out of the sky. They did not arrive intact, completely outside of any sort of context. They arose from a promise fulfilled, and a new relationship with God. As much as we have learned to hear “Thou shalt not…” and the foreboding tone that it carries, these are words that speak of freedom, and opportunities for life.
Everything about the Ten Commandments flows from its preamble; it’s the most important part! Unfortunately, they way we have been raised simply leaves it off:
“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery;” –Exodus 20:2
The whole reason for these commandments is a reminder of what God had done for Israel… that God had freed them from slavery in Egypt, and brought them into a land where they could live in freedom. “You were once slaves, now you are free people.” Once you were subject to the whims of another human ruler, subject to the will of another people, and your destiny controlled by another hand. “You are no longer slaves! I brought you from there to live lives of your own.”
In Exodus this horde of ex-slaves just a few months out of Egypt need to learn how to become a community on their own. To that end, these are the ground rules for being in relationship with God (whom they’re still getting to know) and with each other. The list is familiar enough:
Someone once put it in a format that’s easy to remember:
- I am God, the one and only.
- Don’t try to put anything in my place.
- Don’t call on me unless you mean it.
- Once a week, Rest, enjoy, trust that things are in my hands, be grateful.
- You have parents, part of the plan. Honour them.
- Don’t take some one’s life.
- Don’t take someone’s wife.
- Don’t take someone’s stuff.
- Don’t take someone’s dignity.
- Don’t even want to.
It would seem to be contradictory… “you are free people, but you shall not do this!” Shouldn’t we be free to do whatever we want? Isn’t that what freedom means?
God is saying, “Now that you are free people, I want you to stay that way… this is what you need to do… or rather not do if your society is going to work and thrive.”
These Ten Commandments were not simply arbitrary, pulled from the air kinds of rules; they are about relationships and about building a healthy society. If we are to live as free people, then there are certain lines that we do not cross… why? because if we do, then we do violence to our relationships with one another, and with the very reason for our existence. If we want to stay as free people, then we need to respect the integrity and dignity of those around us. These commandments are intended to give everyone a fair chance at life. History is full of examples that life without some sort of rules for living in community isn’t freedom, it’s chaos.
When I was in seminary, I once had the opportunity to visit a maximum-security youth prison in Burnaby. A group of us came in to do some recreational stuff with some of the better-behaved inmates. That having been said, there were some very clear boundaries that we were briefed on ahead of time… the one that was stressed the most was “don’t ask them why they’re in here.” The chaplain on duty told us that at this point in their incarceration most of the inmates didn’t feel that they had done anything wrong, except maybe the fact that they got caught. I had expected to see maybe those who had low self-esteem, or had experienced some sort of trauma in growing up. Maybe elsewhere, but in this maximum security place, this was not the case. What struck me was how intelligent these young men seemed… The duty chaplain who had been there for years told us that most of the people who were there were not in jail because they thought too little of themselves, but because they thought too much of themselves. They were brilliant kids with lots of potential… but to them, everyone else who has a job, or follows the law, is a loser. Most of them got here because of the arrogant idea that the rules are made for everyone else but them. For them, additional deterrence with harsher penalties were meaningless, because getting caught was the only thing they did wrong.
In the aftermath of the financial scandals in the US following the collapse of both Enron and Worldcom, someone once observed: “When you’ve got a bunch of arrogant people who think they are just a bit too smart for conventional accounting practices, that the rules are made for uncreative dummies, you’ve got disaster. We saw this again in the lead up to the collapse in 2008 and the great recession that followed. History repeats itself…
Martin Luther once observed that the strength of the Ten Commandments is their simplicity. God didn’t make things overly complex for us… “You want to live free… these are the lines that you don’t cross, and you will remain free.” God loved us enough to make it easy to understand.
The Commandments were Israel’s way of freeing its children from enslavement to gods more cruel and demanding than the Trinity… those demanding idols of our own creation: alienation, self-absorbed self-confirming bias, and the relentless quest for self-fulfillment. Israel loved its young enough to show them the way, to reassure its youth that they need not always reinvent the wheel of morality, decency, and the good life. Thank God, not everything is up for grabs. The good news is that God loved us enough to give us a means to maintain our freedom. God loved us enough to give us a promise of life, and means to keep it that way… it’s too precious not to enjoy.