Come on already – give us a break! It’s Lent. We slog around in regret and guilt, confessing sins known and unknown, and we still are going to die. If that’s not enough, add in the Ten Commandments to see how you’re doing. Paul says the law’s purpose is to remind us we sin, in case we forget.
Visit an east coast pre-Revolutionary Episcopal Church. You’ll likely see the Ten Commandments on the wall behind the altar. Parishioners saw them, learned them, obeyed them – for each Sunday they read them aloud at church and the priest admonished the parish to obey them. And then travel west into the boonies of eastern Kentucky. You’ll see the Commandments on sides of buildings, barns, in front yards, and even at Court Houses. Public displays tell heathen and liberals around who’s in charge here. It’s a lot easier to post them, than keep them.
Last week I read about a British evangelical preacher, “J. John.” He’s changed the negative “Thou shalt not’s” because, he says, modern people prefer their rules to be stated in positive ways. “Thou shalt not steal” becomes “prosper with a clear conscience.” “Thou shalt not covet” becomes “find contentment.” And “affair-proof your relationship” will prevent adultery. Not quite the way God sent them, but maybe that will work.
Shortly after God gets the Hebrews freed from Egypt’s Pharaoh, God becomes Writer in Residence on Mt. Sinai. God writes out Ten Commandments, a covenant patterned on laws of the time. The covenant is not “I did this for you. Since I did, here’s what you do for me, or I’ll smite you.” God’s offer is: “I freed you because I love you. To stay free, follow my directions.” Captives in all times set free, soon will look for a new Pharaoh, which is exactly what these freed slaves do when Moses goes off with God. They make an idol, and start holding worship services. Short-term memory fails. God who just set them free – finds He’s been traded in for a cow.
Think of the Commandments as God’s pledge of fidelity and unconditional love to all humankind. God first loves us and wants to be in relationship with us. Salvation does not depend on our ability and success at obeying rules. Salvation is God’s gift feely offered to all before we even have a chance to mess up. God hopes our response[i] will be at least to try and obey out of love and gratitude. The commands are a blueprint for living a life pleasing to God, if we choose. Even when we read passages about God we find offensive and cannot explain, always remember God’s steadfast love far exceeds God’s judgment and wrath.[ii] As a friend used to say, “We can become so hardheaded God needs a two-by-four to get our attention.” God’s gifts of love and grace to us are no use if we refuse them and live as we well please. And God does care that we won’t, for we’re likely to get into trouble.
God’s commandments come in two parts: the first four define a proper relationship with the God of the Exodus. The second part defines holy behaviors – how love of God shapes our relationship with others.
Most think keeping the first four is pretty easy. We love God. We think about God sometimes. We come to church – God’s number one with us, right? We worship, pray, study scripture, serve others to grow in our love to God. And we don’t worship idols or other gods, like the ancients. We worship God alone, right? – except for maybe wealth, or nation, possessions, staying angry when we need to forgive – some even make an idol of self – “do what I want; find myself; discover myself.” Today’s idols are on TV, in movies, play sports. We likely spend more time worshiping modern gods – that are interesting and more exciting than the God of Exodus, the prophets and Jesus. If we get these four right – the other six will fall into place. Jesus boils it down to love God seriously so we can love one another fully – even those who annoy us.
Loving God and loving others won’t guarantee us success or prosperity. Jesus perfected love of God and others. For his efforts he suffered and died on a cross. Loving God doesn’t guarantee life will always be smooth. Sometimes we must exercise the will and stay loyal to God even when we do not understand what’s going on; stay close even when God seems absent. All along God’s love comes first. We trust that love. We celebrate God’s love and love God in return in words, behaviors, and actions to others. God shapes us into being a light unto the world, inviting others home to God, too. Will they see enough to be attracted home?
Remember who you are – you are the beloved of God. Love God by helping others learn they are God’s beloved, too, and see that love in you. We are here to be sent out and love this world for God’s sake. Do you wonder why Jesus reduced all these rules to just two? Start by reflecting on your relationship with God. No, no – that’s not right. Instead, start by reflecting on God’s relationship with you.
[i] Gene Tucker, Preaching Through the Christian Year (B); Trinity Press International, 1993, pg. 150.
[ii] W. Sibley Towner, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2, Westminster/John Knox Press, 2008; pg. 77.