A Sunday school teacher was discussing the Ten Commandments with her five and six year olds. After explaining the commandment “honor your father and your mother,” she asked, “Is there any commandment that teaches us how to treat our brothers and sisters?” Without missing a beat a little girl said: “Yes, Thou shall not kill!”
I got a million of them! Joe woke up on Sunday morning and was heading to church but couldn’t find his coat. He thought, “I know at Forest Hill, people leave their coats on the hangers all the time. I bet I can find a good one. Maybe during coffee hour…” So he goes to church and the preacher devotes his entire sermon to the Ten Commandments. After the service Joe comes up to the preacher to shake his hand and says: “I want to thank you, Pastor, for saving my soul today. I came to church to steal a coat and after hearing your sermon on the 10 commandments, I decided against it.” The preacher answered “You mean the commandment ‘Thou shall not steal?” “No,” said Joe, “the one about adultery. As soon as you said that, I remembered where I left my coat.”
It is funny how we joke about the things that agitate us. The Ten Commandments-which billboards remind us are not the Ten Suggestions-what’s not to understand? And yet they are deep. Jesus intensified their meaning “You have heard that it was said “You shall not murder…but I say to you that if you are angry with your brother or sister you are liable for judgment.” President Carter confessed that he had “lusted in his heart.”
We miss something profound, if we minimalize them to obligations, or formulaic “or else” sayings. Honor your mother and father is much more than telling children to do what their parents say.
Remember the context – these are the words of God spoken to a people moving from slavery to freedom. These are traveling words, formational words – they are words that seek to flesh out, so to speak, the covenant between God and the children of Israel – this unique relationship of God with us… Emmanuel; “this is how you will live together.” These are the liberating boundaries which set us free to live in community.
Lets stop right there for a moment because I said “liberating boundaries.” If you are bound, how can you be free? It seems a contradiction, no? Not really!
Without borders or boundaries, there is no art. The edges of the canvas, the boundaries imposed by the frame actually add to the product. Because there are boundaries, art sets us free. Actually invites us to think beyond. The limit moves us beyond the frame into imagination and spirit.
There are divine mathematical rules to follow in music – without rules there is cacophony – complete disorder – no melody, no nothing. Each piece of music urges us on to find new meaning and modes. The “rules” can be shaped in almost endless patterns of possibility. But we know its music and not just noise.
Without pages and grammar there is no written language, without shape and form there are no letters, without some common agreed upon understanding of what words mean (without the boundary of meaning) there is nothing – we are mute, no one has a clue what anyone else is saying – loosed into the chaos of the Tower of Babel where no one could understand each other.
The Ten Commandments you see are an expressive articulation of God to his people – a continuation of the seven days of creation. Before God spoke and created boundaries for the waters above the earth and below the earth – there was chaos, void – not evil, just no-thing. Perhaps it was like the “thick darkness” that is God that Moses draws near to in vs. 21. That is a rich and wonderful image – God’s otherness is thick with darkness – like the black hole of all black holes from which all energy, and all everything comes and goes. And then God spoke out of the thick darkness and there was – limits, boundaries of space and time.
These 10 commandments, call us into community and set a framework for existence. They are the frame for liberating us from the bondage and slavery of closed mindedness, of simply following rules – like the people had to do in Egypt.
There is no freedom without shape. The Ten Commandment shape the conversation. We have to deal with them, unpack them, be ordered by them, interpret them again and again in the context of our present wilderness; we are free to do that.
God declares to the people I AM YOUR GOD – you are mine. God is that passionate – the thick impenetrable darkness is a puddle of loving mush – jealous for her beloved.
I know that for many claiming YHWH, or claiming Christ, becoming a Christian, joining a church -seem to limit the options, judging other faith claims, other experiences; being bounded by a religious tradition, limits intellectual curiosity. But I don’t believe it. There is nothing in these commandments which condemn others, or says “don’t think.” Actually, they invite engagement.
The first commandment is “you shall have no other gods before me.” The plain reading of the text suggests that there may be lots of other options, other ways of defining self, other gods – BUT for those who find their identity in the covenantal relationship with YHWH – these words define us, give us structure and form and boundary from which we take off. God, to us, creates and calls and redeems and restores, and gives life and is mystery; both totally other and incarnated – part of life.
In life, we have to put our bags down somewhere and call someplace home. A lone wanderer really isn’t free – just trapped by an inability to make connections anywhere. Keeping all options open means no commitment. Someone who never lands in location is lost. An undefined person is ultimately shallow – no identity at all.
But knowing who you are and who you are not – sets you free.
God gives us the gift of Sabbath, a limit to work, a boundary for rest – without rest then work is gross, a recipe for burnout and worthlessness, brokenness.
Really, these commandments are grace filled and marvelous.
Did you notice that these ancient articulations of what God desires for community include gender equity – both your father AND your mother are to be honored. Male AND female – a move from patriarchy. Some cultures and even some churches break this rule. When secular laws and cultural norms keep women in the homes, and not give equal pay for equal work, and demean women as sex idols we are not honoring this commandment.
No one is being set free when we are lusting, coveting, jealous of what others have; breaking the bond of freedom that is our in Christ by the slavery of desire. Trapped by wishing we had more, anxious because someone else is getting something we want.
The command to honor your mother and father – which is, I think, improperly overused to tell little children to obey their parents – is really a command for adult children, part of God’s divine intention for community that we honor the aged – the elderly. That all people have worth.
The commandments describe a community that honors off days for the slaves, livestock and alien residents. God declares Sabbath for the insider and the outsider, the deserving and the undeserving. Not for the master alone, or the rich who can afford leisure, but for all.
You see, these commandments are deep and prophetic and challenging – not simple do’s and don’ts but profoundly engaging and interpretive. It is not about God’s “coming down and punishing us.” Breaking these bonds of community create their own punishment – guilt, broken trust, separation, denial – for three and four generations.
These commands set us free – You shall not kill – so our energy, as people of the covenant, should be on life, giving life, of equipping people to be free – because the metaphorical murder of the dreams and aspirations of young people trapped in concentrated poverty is just as bad as putting a body in a morgue.
Don’t bear false witness – sets us free to speak well of others, and think the best of others, and not berate and demean and bully.
No idol worship…more about this in two weeks when we look at the text about the “Golden calf.” But did anyone else think of the “golden bull” on Wall St. – the idol of wealth production which is our system and how we bow down before it?
Misuse of God’s name – this isn’t about cussing or profanity … it is about limiting the majesty of God, who reveals Godself in a name which is boundless in its form – YHWH – “I am who I will be!” Don’t limit God, narrow God, box God in with dogma and doctrine… that is misusing God’s name.
Talk about the wrongful use of the name of the Lord… If I hear one more politician use the name of God or Jesus Christ on their sleeve to appeal to a particular voting block, or call another politician’s faith tradition “a cult,” or hear some spouse say that their husband’s candidacy comes direct from the mouth of God, please!
Being glib with the name of God is the abomination. Please, love God with all your mind and heart and soul, give glory to God for the sheer joy of giving glory but please don’t wear your conviction on your sleeve that makes people go “YUCK.”
These commandments are not to make us pious but powerful, not fearful but awed and reverent, not shaking in our boots but ready to put our boots on the ground and move towards the promised land – we are identified by the laws we keep and the compassion we share.
These laws show God’s mercy and desire that all shall live in Shalom – wholeness, peace, sharing the abundance with all, not privatizing the profits for a few. The blessings are for a thousand generations – which essentially is forever!
But of course, at the end – the people are fearful, always misinterpreting the divine presence. Freedom is scary. Who knows what will happen in Libya and Egypt. It is hard to step into the glow of liberty from alcohol and abuse. Sometimes, it is easier to be told what to do and not ask questions. But that kind of blind obedience God does not want. This is a covenant, a give and a take, a relationship which is open, cooperative, liberating.
Moses says, “Don’t be afraid” – live in wonder that God seeks to bless for eternity. God gives us boundaries of grace, of creativity, of compassion, of empathy, of justice, of intelligence, imagination, love, and yes, humor, that truly liberates us in the beloved community.