© Nick Strobel, October 5, 2008
The title of my sermon is "The Blessing Of and From the Ten Commandments". How can that be? When we hear "The Ten Commandments" in a religious context, don't we first think of all the "thou shalt nots"? When I was up in Seattle a few summers ago attending a seminar held at the University of Washington, I was stopped by a couple of earnest students who asked me if I knew the 10 commandments. I got all of the "thou shalt nots" and the honor your father and mother but I didn't get all of the positive ones about our relationship with God. Have the Ten Commandments become burdens setting limits on our behavior? This leads some to believe that all we need to do to fix a rebellious society is to publicly display the Ten Commandments with all of the loud finger-wagging and fire and brimstone that goes with it. We have the Alabama judge hauling around a 2.5-ton monument (500 pounds per commandment!) to various public appearances. The Ten Commandments have become a talisman to ward off all the sin out there. (It's like the requirement from our high school board of trustees that our local high schools display a sign "In God we trust" in all of the classrooms in the belief that that will keep the youth and teachers on the straight and narrow.)
Where is the blessing?
It's not that I'm against having rules and laws or against enforcement of them. At work I'm a policy and procedures-type of guy both in my classroom and in the campus at large. I stick to my syllabus policies for grading, late assignments, etc. When we did a DISC behavior/emotion inventory analysis in the academy I'm part of this year, I scored very high on the "steadiness" and "compliance" factors. At home Lisa and I have rules for our girls and we seem to be on the stricter end of raising our kids than what seems to be the case in most other households, but we do this intentionally because we love our daughters.
The commandments and the 600+ other laws and rules in the scriptures by themselves can be hard and condemning. Indeed they are often seen that way because they are used that way. However, the Bible has been called a "love letter from God", both the New and Old Testaments, including the Ten Commandments and all the rest. The message of love is what gives life. The theologian, Karl Barth, wrote that "the law is the form of the law". The law is like the bones of the body that provides the form and the gospel is like the muscles and organs. The body needs both. Bones without the muscles and organs just lie around and turn into stone and muscles and organs without the bones are just a pile of flesh that also just lies there. The body needs both as surely as breathing requires both inhaling and exhaling.
Where is the blessing? Where is the grace? Where is the love in the Ten Commandments?
I am thankful for being given this chance to speak on the Ten Commandments because it has forced me to take the time to read and think and pray about making the Ten Commandments more than what they've always been for me before.
Several of the essays I read this past week were very helpful in enabling me to put down in words what I had only an inkling of before. There has to be more to the Ten Commandments than a bunch of requirements, either "thou shalts" or "thou shalt nots". Are they more than just a bunch of old "dry bones"?
Well, we should notice that the Ten Commandments are given after God has delivered the Hebrew people from slavery and the tyranny of the world power of that time. God's grace came first. Now God gives to the people through Moses the law, the teaching, the "torah" that they will need in their new lives in freedom. How are they to live in a way that sustains their freedom and grow in their love of their creator and deliverer? Howard Wallace, professor of Old Testament in the Centre for Theology and Ministry of the Uniting Church in Victoria, Australia, writes,
"Law [throughout all of the ancient world] was always thought of as being of divine origin and was a way of ordering human society so that it functioned in a way consistent with the divine will and ordering of the cosmos. In other words, law was seen as part of creation itself. Just as there were Śnatural' limits and behaviours set within the cosmos itself, so law set these limits within human society. And just as creation was intended to offer life to all, so law was given so that people may prosper in a long life (see Deut 6:1-3; 30:19 etc). The law or torah (also Śteaching') is therefore an instrument of mutual relationship in which the faith of the people responds to the love and grace of God. It is that understanding behind the torah that gives life to its observance. It is a lack of understanding of torah in that sense that leads some Christians to say it is purely Ślegalistic', and does not reveal a God of grace (as known by Christians). That could not be further from the truth." (Wallace, 2008)
In another essay I found out the Jews count the commandments in a different way than the Christians do and that way helps us see the grace, the blessing from the Ten Commandments. The first commandment in Jewish tradition is not "You shall have no other gods before me" of verse 3, but instead verse 2 "I am the Lord your God". Brent Laytham, the Coordinator of the Ekklesia Project explains how this declaration leads us to a life of gratitude. Laytham explains that the first commandment as the Jews count it, is
"an announcement: gospel news for a people desperate to hear it. It is a creative word that speaks into reality a new existence: I am your God and you are my people. This reorients the grammar of the [Ten Commandments], for it means that the one who keeps the first commandment—on which all the other commandments rest—is the faithful One of Israel. The other nine commands for Jews—all imperative in form, all engaging Israel's active response to divine initiative—simply shape a life of gratitude, a life poured out in grateful response to the gospel announcement that precedes: I am your God." (Laytham, 2008)
Well, I tell you that an attitude of gratitude is a lot better motivator in getting these old tired bones out of bed in the morning than some requirement, policy or rule! I can "press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus." (Our Philippians passage this morning.)
Now it's going to seem I'm changing gears a bit in the rest of what I'm going to say but I do this in order to share with you one other essay I found especially helpful to me.
At the start of this week I was thinking I would talk about how the Ten Commandments were set up in two parts drawing parallels with our readings in the Vital Signs book. In the book, Dan Dick writes that vital churches blend and balance an inward growth and outward service, "acts of piety and acts of mercy". He relates an incredible image given by one of the youth of a vital congregation for the balance: "It's like breathing. Acts of piety are like inhaling; acts of mercy are exhaling. They go together. People may ask, which is most important, but the answer is 'It depends on what you did last.' Life (vitality) depends on an equal measure of both." (Dick, 2007). We balance our love of God with our love of neighbor. When Jesus was asked what was the greatest commandment, Jesus quoted the Hebrew scriptures "'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." (Matthew 22:37-39) These two commandments are reflected in the two parts of the Ten Commandments. The first part of the Ten Commandments is about the proper vertical relationship with God, our love of God. The second part of the Ten Commandments is about the horizontal relationships of community, our love of neighbor. We can use the cross as a symbol of that. The vertical part is our relationship with God and the horizontal part is our relationship with each other and all those whom God loves. In order to have this symbol you need both parts. One without the other is just a straight stick or board.
I was going to talk about these two parts as two parts but then I read an essay by David Gill, an organizational ethics consultant and I found that instead of talking about the two sections, I should show how all ten commandments are about the same thing. All ten commands are simultaneously ten ways to love God and ten ways to love your neighbor. Each of us are made in God's image. To love God is to love our neighbor and to love our neighbor is to love God. Also, all ten are principles of justice and righteousness. We make God the only God as an act of love and because God has the right to "sit on that divine throne in our life. It is simply unfair and unjust not to let God be God. So too it is loving to protect life (the sixth commandment), but it is equally true to say that God alone has the right to give and take human life and that people have a right to life as they stand before us in the world." (Gill, 2008)
I'll close with Gill's description of how this unified viewpoint applies to each of the commandments. He uses the traditional Christian numbering of the commandments.
"I: You shall have no other gods before me.
The first way we love God is to make him the only one. It is the principle of "exclusivity and the unique place." God has a right to that place of worship and centrality in our lives. This choice is also good for our neighbors. It is good for my neighbor for me not to make money or power my god; it is good for my neighbor for me to maintain the gracious, forgiving Yahweh as my God; it is good for my neighbor that my God is the Creator of all people, all nations, both sexes, and not some tribal deity.
It sets us free from inferior and false gods. And it teaches us the basic principle that our spouses, kids, friends, and employees each need to have their own unique place of value in our lives (not God's place but certainly their place of value that no one else can threaten or occupy).
II: You shall not make for yourself any idols or images of any kind
The second way we love God is by letting God be free and alive, by not substituting some fixed image (artistic, theological, cultural) for God's dynamic, living presence, speaking, listening, and acting in our daily lives. This is a living God. So too, people made in God's image (our spouses, kids, colleagues) thrive when we let them be alive and growing; they shrink and suffer when we create images and stereotypes of them.
III: You shall not misuse the name of the Lord.
The first act of communication is to say the name of the other. Saying it often enough, and saying it with respect, is what sets the stage for the relationship. Do not use names in an empty, vain fashion. Learn the name, speak it with respect. The third way you love God or those made in his image.
IV: Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy; Six days you shall labor and do all your work.
The fourth way we love God is to take time off, quality time every week, to be with him; yes (this is a double-command with two imperative phrases!), we love God by working for God (indeed, God has a right to our work for him; justice, not just love), but that is not enough. God wants to be loved by our stopping to take time with him. Same principle for loving anyone made in God's image: work for them, take some time to be with them.
V: Honor your father and mother as the Lord your God has commanded you.
Fifth principle: honor (it means treat with respect and care) those who have been God's agents to bring you life and truthŠ Parents are (ideally) those who bring you life, care, teaching, encouragement. Anybody who plays those roles (however imperfectly) is to be honored. That shows love to the one who sent those agents into our lives.
VI: You shall not murder.
We love God by protecting the life and existence of his creatures. These lives belong to God, not us. This commandment also means feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, healing the sick, and calming disputes, not just refraining from shooting or knifing your enemy!
VII: You shall not commit adultery.
"What God has joined together let no one put asunder." We love God by protecting the covenant relationships he has allowed or guided into existence (as crazy as they may sometimes appear to us!). Marriage is the main symbol of such relationships; adultery is wrong because it is a brutal attack upon and violation of a covenanted relationship established by God. More broadly, we protect and nurture the relationships of friends, parent and child, and so on.
VIII: You shall not steal.
And we protect the material infrastructure of people's lives. In addition to our physical existence (#6) and our core relationships (#7), we all need food, clothing, shelter and other material things (#8). We are not disembodied spirits hovering around the planet. Š It is an act of love and justice toward God and toward his creatures that we protect people's stuff, rather than try to take it from them.
IX: You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
People need their reputation and they need truth in order to have any kind of chance at a life. We love God by avoiding falsehood and slander and gossip, and by being people who speak truth in love.
X: You shall not covet anything that belongs to your neighbor.
Finally, we live in a world in which our thoughts, intentions, attitudes, and spirituality are of fundamental importance. We love God by seeking a pure heart that thinks and wills the best for God and for our neighbors (and even our enemies). We avoid anger, greed, lust, covetousness, jealousy, envy, prejudice and the other deeply corrupting sins of mind and spirit. This is the tenth way we love God, and the tenth act of love for our fellow human beings." (Gill, 2008)
On this World Communion Sunday, we share in the life and spirit of Jesus with other Christians around the world. We remember that last meal Jesus had with his friends. Do we remember and keep the new commandment he gave us? "You must love each other, just as I have loved you. If you love each other, everyone will know that you are my disciples." (John 13:34-35).
Press on to make it your own, because Christ Jesus has made you his own! Amen.
Dick, Dan (2007) "Vital Signs" (Discipleship Resources: Nashville, TN), page 90.
Gill, David (2008) essay on the Journey With Jesus website posted at http://www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20080929JJ.shtml (accessed September 30, 2008)
Laytham, Brent (2008) essay on his blog "Blogging toward Sunday" posted at http://www.theolog.org/blog/2008/09/blogging-towa-5.html (accessed September 30, 2008)
Wallace, Howard (2008) essay for October 5, 2008 posted at http://hwallace.unitingchurch.org.au/WebOTcomments/OrdinaryA/Pentecost21.html (accessed September 30, 2008)