Ten Commandments for our Times

March 8, 2015

Bible Text: Exodus 20:1-17 |

As a culture, we generally maintain some vague awareness of the Ten Commandments as a kind of baseline code of ethics for society to follow. In this regard, they’re kind of like the Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights – these fundamental documents in western civilization that have helped create the culture we live in. We might be able to recite only two or three of them, but as long as we’re solid citizens, we can presume that we’re following the spirit of the Ten Commandments

And, even if we were to give them a cursory glance, we’d pretty much find ourselves to be in compliance:

We’re not worshiping other gods. We have no idols. We’re certainly not in the habit of murdering anyone. By and large we’re doing alright.

Well, maybe so. But on the other hand, maybe not so much. They found their place as one of the bases of society because embedded within them is a world of wisdom and substance, which makes them more than worthy of our continued attention.

A little background:

The Ten Commandments were given to the Jews right after they’d been freed from slavery in Egypt. Imagine: suddenly free after centuries of enslavement. What would they do with their freedom? Well, just as we all discovered when we became adults, a mature freedom isn’t a license to do whatever strikes your fancy, it is a call to responsibility.

That’s how it is with the Old Testament law and the Ten Commandments: you are free to make good choices or bad, and this is what good choices look like. In the law God is laying out the basis for a good and just society. Israel is to become the showcase of an ideal humanity. Even though much of the Old Testament law is culturally bewildering to us today, in the Ancient Near East it was groundbreaking. There was nothing comparable to it for creating a society that was just; where the poor were not allowed to become too poor; where the foreigner was safe. God is creating a new people and a new culture and the law provides the framework that will make it work. And the Ten Commandments are like a condensed version of the law. You’ll notice in them that they are all about relationships. The first four are about Israel’s relationship with God; the following six are about their relationship with one another. Unlike our society which is about guaranteeing individual freedom, individual opportunity and happiness, the Ten Commandments are about community.

And notice how they begin. There’s a prelude that introduces them:

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.

The Ten Commandments are predicated on who God has already proven himself to be. God has initiated the relationship. God has demonstrated – not only his power – but his intention to choose them, of all the peoples of the earth, and to give them freedom. In the language of covenant, God has already proven his end of the bargain. Everything that follows will now be a response to what God has done.

The parallel is true in our life and our generation as well. What began with the Jews is extending through Christ to the whole world: God has initiated our salvation and achieved our salvation. God chose to love us first and to set us free from our burdens and our sins. Everything we do is simply a response to what God has already done.

I wish we had the time to look to look at them individually, but we’re Episcopalians and we’ll only tolerate so much of a sermon. So I’m going to focus on five that speak with particular poignancy to our generation.

Number One:  You shall have no other gods before me.

There are a couple of things to be said here. At its essence I believe this is, not only the grounding of the Ten Commandments, but the grounding of all creation: God is God, and without God we do not exist. All life comes from God and finds its meaning in God and we are fools to live as if this were not so. That’s not to say there isn’t a place for honest inquiry and confusion and doubt. Of course. But at the bottom of it all, we are meant for God, and without that central beacon, that grounding truth, that life of all life, we will always be floundering – searching desperately for the meaning of it all.

But this begs another issue that we have to wrestle with, especially in our generation: How tribal are we supposed to be in defense of our God? The Ten Commandments were written into a cultural worldview of territorial gods: each little geographical region had their own deity, with its own limited power and dominion. What do we do now, we who live in a global community with two major world religions claiming that there is one God and their God is right (three religions if you want to separate the Jesus of the New Testament from the Yahweh of the Old Testament), to say nothing of all the other global faiths? Does obedience to our God justify holy war? Or are we called to some form of pluralism that blurs the distinctions between our religions? Or is there a way to claim and pursue the distinctiveness of our faith tradition, yet still to live in peace with our neighbors of differing faith and even to discover them to be sister and brother? I think you know where my heart lies, but the topic is too big to tackle here and now. But I lay it before you as one of the crucial issues of our generation: You shall have no other Gods before me.

Commandment Three: You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord.

Most of us were raised to interpret this as a prohibition against using God’s name as a swear word. “Oh God” or “Jesus Christ!” Now, I’ll admit, that kind of language is vulgar and unseemly. But to reduce this commandment to nothing more than some junior swear word is to miss the point entirely. We use the name of the Lord wrongfully when we attribute to our God a characteristic that is untrue. When Christians spout off about all the people whom God hates: gays and Muslims and whomever else they want to vilify, I say that classifies as “wrongful use of the Lord’s name.” God is love and hates none of his creation. Do not attribute to God what is merely the filth of your own heart. And it is also wrongful use of the name of the Lord when we claim God’s name, in a public guise of Christianity, then go out in the world and live lives of selfishness and pettiness and unbridled consumerism. What kind of life is that? How are we sullying the name of God if we live by such godless values? God will not be mocked, but it is his own people who most consistently make a mockery of his name.

Commandment Four: Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy.

As a society, we’ve dropped Sabbath keeping completely, including within the church. The caricature of “keeping the Sabbath” is that’s it’s a miserable burden: go to church, and don’t do any work, and certainly don’t do anything enjoyable. But that also misses the point completely. Sabbath is gift. The whole premise is that God wants to give his people rest. One day of every week is supposed to be spent in peace. This was unheard of in the Ancient Near East: if you were poor, if you were a laborer, you could anticipate a life of ceaseless toil, and God says, “No. Not for my people. Work is good and work is necessary, but I also command rest and relaxation.” Now, we live in a society that ostensibly offers us two days of rest. We’re weekend people. But I ask you, are you really resting on the weekend? or does your work follow you ceaselessly: Checking your phone, responding to emails, returning to work after the kids are in bed? To say nothing of shopping and cleaning and cooking.  And church culture is no better. We’re like the society around us, with the same urgent need to be bigger and brighter, marketing ourselves as one more glittering option in a culture that is crushing you for your time and money. Our lives are over-scheduled and our world is going faster and faster and something has got to give. Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy. Imagine a life where, one day a week – doesn’t matter which day you choose – but one day a week that is truly set aside for rest, real rest, life-giving, restorative rest. I see very little of this in the world we live in. We have freed ourselves from the burden of Sabbath-keeping and sacrificed the heart of God’s good desire for us.

Commandment Five: Honor your father and your mother.

There’s so much that could be said here, but I want to highlight just one consideration that our generation needs to come to terms with: How do we live out a relationship of honor with our aging parents. How do adult children honor their mom and dad who are slipping into dementia? How do we honor them in a medical system that is focused on saving their life and solving their problems even it means destroying their quality of life? How do we honor our parents who don’t want to live in a skilled nursing facility even though we’re convinced it’s the best option for them? What if what we really mean is that it’s most convenient for us? How do we honor our aging parents without treating them like children or – even worse – as a nuisance? We have got to figure this out as a society and as a church.

And finally, commandment ten: Do not covet.

Good lord! Our culture is so enmeshed by covetousness that we can’t even see it for what it is. Our entire economy is fueled by coveting: you need more and more and more. This season’s look. This year’s signature color. Designer this and designer that. Dream homes and dream bodies and dream vacations. Prepare your bucket list. Nothing you have is good enough.  A thousand magazines will shame you with a hundred thousand images of who you ought to be. And a thousand companies will sell you a hundred thousand products to help you overcome your deficiencies. And it will never be enough. Thou shalt not covet…because you are wonderfully made. You are already the image-bearer of God. Within you lie ten thousand glories, and more. Come, you who are blessed of our Father, and find your rest. You don’t need more; you need only discover what is already yours. And as for your neighbor, she is no longer your competitor or your shame. She is now freed to be loved, for she too is the beloved of God. Of each of us it true that God says, “Oh – I’m especially fond of you.”

God only desires our good, only desires the life we were born to live – a life where we know the presence of God and the pleasure of God; a life of integrity and peace; where we desire and foster a just society, where the poor and the aged are valued and honored; where joy is found in sharing, not consuming.

The law of the Lord is perfect

and revives the soul;

the testimony of the Lord is sure

and gives wisdom to the innocent (Psalm 19:7)

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