October 2, 2011
For World Communion, we hear a foundational text for the world. These words come from the lips of God and end up inscribed on stone. They are instructions given to a group of runaway slaves, to the end that those same people would become a light to the nations.
Students of comparative religion are lectured on how this text comes at a high-water mark of divine revelation. Future attorneys are instructed in law school on the influence of this legal code. Sunday School children learn the commandments with hand signals, and adults say, “Why can’t we do that?”
These are the words given to Israel. They call them “the Ten Words.” The people are on the loose, but they are not free to do whatever they want. God has set them free, and now has expectations for how they should live, what they should do, how they should walk. These are the Ten Words for free people to walk.
Even so, the Ten Words are often regarded as difficult words. A permissive generation finds them restrictive. Reminds me of the day somebody walked into the hospital room of W. C. Fields, the great comedian. The friend caught him unaware and all alone. It was near the end of Fields’ life, and he was flipping through a Bible. The friend said, “What are you doing?” Fields said, “Looking for loopholes.”
For people who think the Bible is basically a collection of rules, the Ten Commandments seem to restrict people from having rambunctious fun. Or they suggested some alternative
The apostle Paul was in this camp. As he famously wrote to the church in Rome, “It never occurred to me to covet, to want what other people have, until I read the Law and it said, ‘Do not covet’!” Covet? Covet. Hmm . . . I wish I had a chariot like my neighbor’s. It was the Law of God that stirred up opposition in him.
In the Ten Commandments, there are eight prohibitions. Keep the Sabbath, honor mom and dad – and everything else is “Don’t do.”
The one prohibition everybody remembers, of course, is “Don’t commit adultery.” Adultery – how would you describe that to a child? One of my Sunday School teachers said, “It’s something adults do. That’s why it is called adultery.” When pushed, she said, “Don’t ask.”
But when a teenage girl gets dumped at the last minute by her prom date for somebody else, the cheating is painful and destructive, even if it wasn’t a legally approved relationship.
That points to what I want to say about the Ten Commandments this morning. If you don’t stick to them, somebody is going to get hurt. Parents can become neglected; that’s your reminder to make the phone call or pay the visit). Innocent citizens get robbed, plundered, lied-about, even killed. People get worn-out by overwork and might even take the Blackberry to church to sneak a peek at e-mail.
The commandments do not say everything. They say you must not lie about your neighbor, for instance, but do not prohibit you from lying about yourself. But that could be quibbling.
What God speaks in the desert are Ten Words that intended for the people’s benefit. They are intended to steer us away from the behaviors and beliefs that can destroy us, and propel us along the path of abundant life.
Remember what God adds after saying, “Don’t worship fake Gods.” The Lord says, “I am a jealous God. I am capable of carrying a grudge for many generations, just as I am capable of loving you and your descendents for many generations.” The point is God is jealous. The Lord wants us to love God and God alone. None of the other fake gods are big enough to deserve our love. None of them are strong enough to bring us out of slavery. Only Yahweh, the Burning Bush God, can do that.
Or the whole business of honoring parents. God says, “It’s good for you to take care of them.” There is a connection, even if it is unseen. Bless the parents who gave you life and your Heavenly Parent who will bless your life. Care for the parents you can see, and the Heavenly Parent you cannot see will care for you. All of life is related.
This is what the Law of God teaches. The Jews had the good sense to call it “perfect, reviving the soul.” Our psalm, Psalm 19, celebrates the words of God: they make us wise, they rejoice the heart, they enlighten the eyes. And my, O my, are they ever tasty! “Sweeter than honey and drippings from the honeycomb.”
A faithful Jew would never say that God decreed these rules to give us misery. Oh no, God spoke in order to prevent our misery. And that is why the Ten Words, the Ten Commandments, are so helpful.
A number of years ago Al Winn, a Presbyterian teacher, declared that the Ten Commandments teach us about the components of a happy and faithful life. Let me run through his own summary:
- No other gods: that is because our God is the only one we need.
- No idols: our God is the only one we have.
- No empty words about God: because God’s name is not empty.
- Sabbath is all about rest.
- Honoring generations is all about stability.
- Avoiding murder is all about enhancing life.
- No cheating around is the key to faithfulness.
- No stealing is the key to generosity
- No lying is the key to truthfulness.
- No lusting after your neighbor’s stuff is the key to contentment.
We do well to live as those who are loved enough to be guided. God sets our lives within the wide banks of the River of Life and says, “Flow here. Move along this channel.” With the Susquehanna nearby, we have all had a graphic reminder of how destructive life becomes when it spills over the river banks. And that is not what God intends.
God wants all of the children of earth to flourish. Listen again to the litany of promises: what we need, what we have, no emptiness, rest, stability, life, faithfulness, generosity, truthfulness, contentment. All of these are promised gifts from a God who simply wants our love.
We know we can depend on our God, for we are called to this Table by his Son, Jesus Christ. He calls us away from the mistakes we have made and the messes we are in, calls us to put down our weapons and to pass the bread around the Table. God gathers us in a sacred tether of faithfulness, and yanks us away from the mistaken belief that we are free to do whatever we want.
This is the great promise, through Ten Words in the wilderness or generous grace at a communion table. It comes from the heart of the God who claims us as his own. This is the God who never turns us loose but always sets us free.
(c) William G. Carter
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