Exodus 19:3-7; 20:1-17
19:3 Then Moses went up to God; the Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the Israelites: You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites.” So Moses came, summoned the elders of the people, and set before them all these words that the Lord had commanded him.
20:11God spoke all these words:
2“I, the Lord, am your God, who brought you from the land of Egypt, up from the house of slavery.
3“You shall have no other gods before me.
4“You shall not make for yourself a carved image or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above or that is on the earth beneath or that is in the water below. 5You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I, the Lord, your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generations of those who reject me, 6and showing steadfast love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.
7“You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold guiltless anyone who misuses his name.
8“Remember the Sabbath day to set it apart as holy. 9For six days you may labor and do all your work, 10but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; on it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, or your male servant, or your female servant, or your cattle, or the resident foreigner who is in your gates. 11For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth and the sea and all that is in them, and he rested on the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and set it apart as holy.
12“Honor your father and your mother, that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving to you.
13“You shall not murder.
14“You shall not commit adultery.
15“You shall not steal.
16“You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.
17“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that belongs to your neighbor.”
After taking a break last year from the Narrative Lectionary, we are back to it, and today find ourselves in Exodus, with Moses and the tribes of Israelites at the foot of Mount Sinai. We have trudged this dusty terrain of wilderness, complaints, endless lists of laws, and flagrant transgressions before. Confirmation class for the 8th graders begins this week and will begin with this God – the God depicted in Genesis and Exodus – creating, forming, loving, molding humans into social beings who promise to be good and yet who always, always behave badly. It seems to be twisted into the strands of our DNA, this dissonance of wanting and believing in a God of justice who will make all things right, and, at the same time, wanting to do what we want to do: the thing that feels right to us, that prospers us.
I think these two desires are the energy that fuels a spiritual life. That dissonance is required.
If following the Ten Commandments and the expanded scenarios described in the chapters of Exodus was easy, if it was something people could do, there wouldn’t be a striving, struggling, wavering, growing, stumbling, longing, dynamic relationship with God. We would be flat characters living some other kind of life —automatons, capable of following rules, living a prescribed pattern without the passions and emotions that cause us to transgress. But as it is, even bugs are territorial, birds at the feeder have their pecking order. Our cats know which food bowl is theirs and Poppins will grab some kibbles from Pippin’s bowl if he’s not in the room yet. She knows what she’s doing.
This is what interests me about the Ten Commandments. That God knows. God knew who he was dealing with. The Bible’s oldest origin tales are of disobedience. Adam and Eve had one rule.
“You may have everything you desire, young earthlings. But just don’t eat the fruit of that one tree – do see it? The one in the middle of the garden. Leave that one alone.” And we know what happened. The morning after, they tried to hide from God, then lied about it, then blamed each other, then blamed the snake…
They leave the garden and the next two people we hear about are their sons – and Cain kills Abel because God preferred Abel’s offering: and then he tries to hide his brother’s body and then lies about it when God confronts him. And then he whines.
Exodus is just the second book of the Bible, and yet disobedience and deceit are well established as the human response to God with very few exceptions. So God knows this truth about us. And God gave the laws anyway, knowing we would fail to live up to them.
“You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples.” If you obey.
The Bible is very informative about human nature – we can see ourselves and modern situations so clearly in stories of people who lived 5000 years before us. And we see what they learned about God. The Isrealites agreed to the terms of God’s covenant. Moses went up into the cloud-covered mountain to be instructed and stayed a long time. The people grew restless and fearful. By the time Moses came back down carrying the stone tablets of the law, they had already broken the covenent by casting a golden calf to protect themselves, and then tried to blame Moses and God and one another. Some old story. It had only been 40 days.
Moses was mad. He yelled at them and broke the tablets and went back up the mountain. God was mad, Moses was still mad, they argued a bit, but we’re told that Moses talked God out of smiting the people, and the tablets were re-written, and God agreed to go with them on the journey to the promised land. Even then it didn’t go smoothly.
So, what is the point of all of this? Why does God enter into a covenant with people incapable of keeping even the first commandment? I guess we can’t know the answer to that question. What we know, what we discover along with the characters of scripture, is that God constantly forgives. Not always immediately. But God is committed to this enterprise. God fell in love with the stiff-necked, hard-hearted earthlings of creation and can’t seem to help himself.
What we learn is that the Ten Commandments aren’t a test or a threat.
The Law is not a burden placed on us by an oppressive taskmaster, another Pharaoh, waiting for us to fail so that we can be crushed or turned out of the kingdom of God. They are a guide given to promote life with God and life with one another. They are the possibility of freedom from the things that oppress us.
In the story of creation, if you remember, God gave shape and form to chaos by putting things into relationship – night and day, water and dry land…now through the law God gives form to chaotic human society, in establishing relationships of trust, and honor, and respect.
What would it be like, in your life, to honor a day of Sabbath, to give yourself rest from the pace and clutter of modern life? We fill our days and even our nights to bursting with constant activity and noise -TV, meetings, sporting events, classes, work, leisure commitments, meals on the fly, chauffeuring our kids to everything they can fit into their days, … what would a day of honoring holy rest do for your week?
How would life be different if we didn’t have to worry about the security of our stuff – our lives, our homes, our marriages, our relationships, our reputations, our lifestyles, our freedoms? How would your workplace be different if you never had to look over your shoulder wondering what’s being said about you, wondering about people’s real motives, or hidden agendas?
How many of your relationships are really free – gossip free, jealousy free, trustworthy beyond doubt? What would happen to politics if we really did all look out for our neighbor’s well-being, if we actively took a part in protecting and improving our neighbor’s house and field and ox and donkey and everything that is our neighbors? What would change in the economy if CEO’s and corporations and banks stopped coveting?
It’s an idealized, outlandish plan – God’s will for our lives: laws established with the intention that they would actually help us live together as a community of caring, hospitable, open-hearted people. It could never work.
In the old movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, Jimmy Stewart’s character gets to see his community as it would have been if he had not been born – he sees the consequences of his life in a negative. Let’s try that with the Ten Commandments.
I am not the Lord your God, I did not bring you out of the land of Egypt, nor out of the house of slavery; you will have other gods before me. You shall make for yourself an idol in gold or silver, in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall bow down to them and worship them; for I am not the Lord your God….
Do not Honor your father and your mother,
You shall murder.
You shall commit adultery.
You will steal.
You will bear false witness against your neighbor.
You will covet your neighbor’s house; you will covet your neighbor’s spouse, his male and female slave, her ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor you shall desire.
The Lord is not my shepherd: I shall be in want. You do not restore my soul, you do not guide me along right pathways. Yea, as I walk in the valley of the shadow of death I fear evil for you are not with me, your rod and your staff do not comfort me. Surely goodness and mercy will not follow me all the days of my life and I will never dwell in the house of the Lord.
Those passages come frighteningly close to how our society looks, sounds, lives.
We are complicit in sin, in evil, in oppression, injustice. But God doesn’t punish us because we continually break the commandments. Salvation and divine blessing are not at stake. God’s stated purpose in giving the law is “so that it will go well for you and you will live long in the land.” The punishment is that we are allowed the freedom to live according to our own devices, generation to generation, allowed to follow the selfish whims of our own hearts. The consequences of breaking the law can be seen in every telling of the day’s news.
The gift of the law – to the extent that we are able to keep it – is the freedom of being a blessing to others, the freedom of extending God’s graciousness and mercy to those we meet, the joy of seeing God revealed in the beauty of the world around us, in the love of friends and family we hold dear. The purpose of the Law is for life here and now. The fulfillment of the Law – to love as we have first been loved – is not a burden. The ‘Why’ of God’s love for us is somewhat of a head scratcher, but, as witnessed by scripture, it is true. No matter who you are or what you have done, there is forgiveness and love for you in the Lord your God.
Thanks be to God.