One of my former ministers once told me that if I ever get a chance to preach on the Ten Commandments – don’t. He told me that whenever he had preached about them in the past, someone got very upset. Some people, he said, think they are the cornerstone of righteousness – the sign of a faithful nation that should be displayed prominently on every government building. And some, he said, think they are pie-in-the sky ideals that are impossible to live up to, and have no place in public discourse.
So I well imagine Thom shaking his finger at me right now and saying, “I warned you.”
The Ten Commandments or Decalogue – literally “Ten Words” – are foundational in both Judaism and Christianity, and for good reason. Scripture tells us they were given to Moses directly from God. The scripture that tells us this is our reading that follows, but also Exodus 34 and Deuteronomy 5.
The Ten Commandments are clear, concise, memorable and unambiguous, and form the basis for ethical behavior of two of the world’s prominent religions. That, at least, is what we learn in Sunday School or catechism. Reality, as usual, says something different.
Before going any further, let’s read Exodus 20:1-20.
Now, Jews and Christians disagree on what the Ten are. Not only that, but within both Judaism and Christianity there are significant differences of opinion about what makes up the commandments.
I will go on record as saying that, as far as I am concerned, all these differences fall in the category of splitting hairs. Even when scripture disagrees – which it does, since the number of commandments in the different Biblical passages ranges from 10 to 14… Anyway, even when scripture disagrees, it doesn’t seem all that important to me. The essence of the Ten Commandments remains consistent, in my opinion.
Jesus considered the Ten Commandments as foundational, just as Jesus understood the declarations of the prophets as vitally important. In many places – too many to list in a sermon – Jesus reinforced the Laws of Moses and the prophets. The Laws of Moses are the Ten Commandments. The prophets declared visions of God and God’s will that were mostly consistent with the Decalogue.
When Jesus took umbrage with following the law to the letter, it wasn’t the Decalogue that was being challenged, but rather the 623 laws developed later by the Levites – the Jewish priests whose thoughts were captured in the Book of Leviticus. It was the Levitical laws that the Pharisees and Sadducees followed to the letter and, according to Jesus, many of those went against the essential tenets of the Ten Commandments. The legalists made an idol of the law – an act that contravened one of the basic commandments.
We can just as easily make an idol of the Ten Commandments.
Georgia representative Lynn Westmoreland was on the hot seat. Westmoreland was very vocal in his support for displaying the Ten Commandments in public buildings—courthouses and such. “Can you think of any other places where the commandments should have prominence?” asked the interviewer, who was trying, mischievously, to press the point that there might be other sites like churches and synagogues where the Decalogue is more at home.
Westmoreland didn’t get it—he kept talking about courthouses—and so the interviewer went for the kill: “What are the Ten Commandments, congressman?” Not surprisingly, Westmoreland was stumped. He named a couple of them—sort of. It was a little embarrassing to watch.
But it was also illuminating for what it revealed about how the Ten Commandments are routinely regarded in public discourse and even in the Church. They are understood as a list of disembodied rules intended to govern personal conduct and particularly applicable in the American civil sphere. And rules, it turns out, that many of us can’t even name. They are seen as protection from one another in a dangerous, unpredictable world, and invoking them regularly is thought to please and appease a God who guards America’s greatness.
By fighting for displaying the Ten Commandments in public buildings – even though not knowing what they said – Westmoreland showed the extent to which they have become popular idols of righteousness. For many, it is not what the Commandments say about behavior, but what they say about us – that we lay claim to being acceptable to God because we are willing to display them.
The Commandments, however, were never meant to be a measure of whether or not we are acceptable to God. God first redeemed the Israelites – took them out of Egypt – released them from slavery and misery. God, then, removed obstacles in their path, like parting the Red Sea. God showed them the way through the desert and gave the Israelites sustenance. The Israelites were already redeemed – saved – when they were given the Ten Commandments.
They weren’t given to display – to make some graven image that could be posted in prominent places to represent Godliness. The Ten Commandments were meant to be lived. They were meant to show the Israelites how to live in grateful response to God’s grace and unending love. The Ten Commandments were meant to be guidelines for the heart of those already redeemed by God – not signposts towards redemption.
The Sermon on the Mount is a re-telling of the Commandments, but with a different twist. When Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus restated the “do’s and don’ts” of the Commandments into ethical attitudes – rules of the heart and of intention. Jesus restated the rules of behavior into rules of thought and ethics for a new and different time.
Then, in Matthew 22, gave us the Greatest Commandment. A lawyer asked Jesus a question as a test. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”
Jesus said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
How do we love our God with all our heart, mind and soul?
We remember that God releases us from slavery, and we have no other gods before God. We don’t put the gods of profit, power or prestige before God.
We don’t make idols – we don’t worship anything as a representation of God or God’s will – we worship God and we seek God’s will.
We set aside our desire to have some physical idol of God, whether it be worldly success or a reproduction of tablets of stone. Instead we internalize God – we assume into ourselves that which God holds dear.
We set aside a time – a Sabbath – during which we focus on our God and our God’s desires, not on the gods of work, money and achievement.
How do we love our neighbor as ourselves?
We do not lift up the name of God falsely to legitimize our own actions against someone else.
We do not claim the right to do harm in God’s name.
We honor our mothers and fathers – those that have come and gone before us giving us our stories and traditions – as well as the mothers and father of others that have given them their stories and traditions. In doing so, we can lead long and fruitful lives on this ground that God allows us to inhabit – and allow others the same.
We don’t murder our neighbor. Actually, from the Hebrew grammar, that can be read as “do not cause the death of” or “do not shatter” our neighbor. It doesn’t have to be physical death – it can refer to any shattering – economic, psychological, health or spiritual.
We don’t commit adultery – unfaithfulness is another meaning of that word. When we enter into relationships, we respect and care for the other individuals in that relationship and strive to keep the relationship whole.
We don’t steal from our neighbor. This word can also mean outwit or cheat. Basically, we don’t take what is not ours by any means – we strive for right and equitable transactions.
We don’t bear false witness. This doesn’t just mean we don’t lie. The word here means deal falsely in any matter whether it is gossip, innuendo or spreading misinformation. That’s not just in there for politicians.
We don’t covet what our neighbor has. Whether it’s a relationship or possession or anything else a neighbor has, we don’t desire it. We don’t operate out of self-interest or greed.
The ethic of the Ten Commandments is clear. Love God and cause no harm to others. Jesus, however, calls us a step further.
The Ten Commandments is made up of Do’s and Don’ts. The Do’s are how we show love for our God. The Don’ts are how we avoid harming others. Jesus changed them all to Do’s.
Jesus suggests that the Law of Moses is not something to idolize, but to internalize. Not something to hang over a door or attach to a public building, but to live out in private and public behavior. And, Jesus tells us, doing no harm isn’t enough. Jesus calls us to love our neighbor.
We want more than no harm for those we love. We want those we love to flourish – to grow – to thrive and find joy – just as we want to flourish and find joy ourselves. Causing no harm is just the beginning – causing benefit for all our neighbors is the goal.