May 25, 2014
William G. Carter
On occasion, I spend time with people who are not Presbyterians. They are pleasant and kind, for the most part, but sometimes they have a few questions.
Last Thursday, for instance, I was surrounded by a room full of Roman Catholics. One of them asked, “What’s your religion like?” Just like yours, was my reply. Both of us are Christians. We worship the God we meet in Jesus Christ, just like you. She looked at me as if she had never considered that I might be a Christian too.
The man next to her said, “But you don’t have a Pope in your religion. If you don’t have a Pope, who tells you what to do?” I smiled at him and said God. It was his turn to look a bit confused.
The first lady jumped back in. She wanted to know, “Does your religion have a lot of rules?” Ah, she was still struggling with this. For clarification, she added, “Our religion has a lot of rules.” I thought about this for a minute, reflected on where this sermon was probably headed, and took a moment to sum up what I wanted to say.
And then I said, “A religion always seems to have a lot of rules, but Christian faith has the gift of guidance.”
From the somewhat horrified look on her face, I’m not sure she was following me at all, but I told her I was going to put together this sermon and invited her to come hear it. It was her turn to smile. She replied, “Well, that’s against the rules.”
Now I bring this up because a lot of people reduce religion to a list of rules. This is exactly how many people perceive the Ten Commandments. They are heavy. They are difficult to pick up and bulky to carry. For all practical purposes, they are unmovable and they do not budge.
“Thou shalt not…” Eight of the Ten Commandments begin that way. They prohibit behavior. They instruct by telling us what not to do. Sometimes, just the burden of being told “no” has the opposite effect.
I told our puppy, “Pippa, don’t play in the mud.” She said, “Mud? Where’s the mud?” She didn’t know there was mud. Next thing you know, she’s up to her elbows in it.
Rules can have an opposite effect. I remember a painful thing that happened right before a wedding. After the rehearsal, where the minister had bride and groom practice their vows, the groom decided to have one last fling. Next morning, when the bride found out about it, she gave him a left hook, knocked him on his tail, and called the whole thing off. The ushers said to him, “What were you thinking?” And he said, “I guess I got really scared when I heard the minister ask, ‘Will you forsake all others?’”
There’s something very heavy about being told “no.” No idolatry – let me set up something else to worship. No stealing – nobody’s going to see me take this. No false witness – well, don’t let the truth stand in the way of a good story. There’s something very human about the heavy weight of being told “no.”
Even the apostle Paul could admit this. In one of his letters, he says, “I find myself doing the very thing I don’t want to do, and the law indicts me. I would never have learned how to covet, except the Ten Commandments say, ‘thou shalt not covet.’” Don’t covet? Gee, never occurred to me until you said it. Thanks for bringing it up, Moses. Paul says, “The law of God is holy, just, and good...and it kills me.” It kills me.
That was how Martin Luther came to understand the law: it is a huge weight that fell on him. It was a heavy burden that crushed the life out of him. Luther said a good sermon should begin by telling people how bad they are (that’s the law), and then the sermon should conclude by telling people how good God is (that’s the Gospel). First the law crushes us, and then the Gospel announces God’s forgiveness.
And so, one Lutheran theologian, Martin Marty, said, “Nobody should put the Ten Commandments in a public place without putting beside it the Gospel of Jesus Christ, that ‘while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.’” Of course, said Marty, somebody is going to say those words sound too religious; as in “we can remember the commandments, but Jesus makes it a bit too Christian.”
In the middle of this conversation, the weight of the is heavy text comes to us. We should take a moment and remember how we felt when we heard the Ten Words of Moses. Anybody feel guilty, remembering past failures? Can you recall the most recent time that you broke one of the commandments?
Or maybe you felt relieved? In a culture where more and more people do their own things, it is comforting to know God has a standard, that God has expectations. In a rather famous commencement speech at Duke University, Ted Koppel declared, “What Moses brought down from Mount Sinai were not the Ten Suggestions, they are Commandments…the sheer brilliance of the Ten Commandments is they codify, in a handful of words, acceptable human behavior.” So, maybe you felt relieved to hear the commandments today.
And yet, I remember that conversation from Thursday night. Popular opinion is that religion is mostly rules, and rules are heavy, and therefore the whole thing should be resisted without getting caught at it. But that is not how the Commandments were first given. Do you remember how the Bible text begins? God says, “I brought you out of Egypt. I brought you out of slavery. I brought you out of the burdens of Pharoah’s brick factory. I brought you out into freedom.” In that freedom, God gives the Ten Commandments.
Here’s what I wanted to tell that woman on Thursday night: when religion is reduced to a list of rules, it begins to die. When faith is merely a heavy burden, it crushes us. The Ten Commandments were never intended to have that effect. No, these are Ten Words of Guidance, given to direct the life of people who know that they are free. God sets us free – and so the Heidelberg Catechism sets them in the context of gratitude. Since God has set you free, therefore . . .
The first reality of Christian faith is that God sets us free in Christ, so the Commandments come as a “therefore.” Work with me for a minute, and let’s see if we can understand how this works.
- God brought you out of slavery. Therefore you don’t need any other gods.
- God brought you out of Egypt with power and might. Therefore you don’t need to worship anybody smaller.
- God set you free in the power of his holy name. Therefore you don’t need to misuse or diminish that name.
- God relieved you from the burdens of Pharoah’s brick factory. Therefore you don’t need to work seven days a week; you can rest from work and pay attention to God.
- God created you through your mom and your dad. Therefore, respect those who gave you birth.
- God gave life to everybody as a gift. Therefore don’t take life from anybody.
- God gives lifelong companions to those who are called to be married. Therefore they don’t have to dismiss the gift.
- God gives you everything you need. Therefore you are free from stealing what isn’t yours.
- God set you free from other people’s opinions of you. Therefore, you are free from distorting the truth about somebody else.
- God provides for every need. Therefore you are free from wanting what other people have.
When it comes to the Ten Commandments, don’t let anybody ever take away that quiet little “therefore.” God gives the commandments to the very people that God brought out of slavery and bondage. Ted Koppel can call them “the summary of acceptable human behavior,” and at the very least, they are.
But according to the Bible, the commandments are not given to everybody, even if everybody would benefit from them. Rather, the commandments of God are given to the people that God sets free. When God first gives the Commandments to the Jews, God says, “You are my treasures; I have brought you out. Therefore, I am giving you the Law, so that you might do the things that Covenant People do.” Don’t let anybody ever take away the “therefore.” That’s what keeps the commandments from becoming a dead religion.
And maybe I should define a dead religion: a dead religion is religion without a God. It’s all the rules without the relationship. Or in the words of one of my teachers, it’s when somebody boils it all down, and all that’s left of a life-giving faith is the stain in the bottom of the cup. Ugh – who wants that?
“You are mine,” says God Almighty. “I brought you out.” God brought Israel out of slavery in Egypt – that is Israel’s covenant. And God brought us out of slavery to sin and death, through the work of Jesus Christ – that is the new covenant (or as the page in your Bible puts it, the New Testament).
A covenant is a covenant. God brings Israel out – and now God calls on them to act as free people are to act. God’s freedom belongs together with God’s expectation. belong together. And I think the evidence of human sin is that we make the life of faith more of a burden than it needs to be.
When it comes to the commandments, let me suggest we take out cue from Jesus. For us, he is the foremost interpreter of all the rules that God has given. Maybe you remember the story. Some legalist came and asked him a question about the commandments. “Teacher, which of God’s commandments is the greatest?” This was a question that came up continually. And if you remember, Jesus answered by saying there are two primary commandments, not one. The first is to love God. The second is to love neighbor.
Now, he didn’t say anything new. In the time of Jesus, every Jew already knew it. There were, after all, two stone tablets in Moses’ hands. One tablet taught us to love God. The other tablet taught us to love neighbor.
The first table focused on loving God: no other gods, no other idols, no abuse of God’s name, keep Sabbath to worship God and welcome God into your life. This is how we love God.
The second tablet was clear about loving neighbor: love mom and dad (who are your very first neighbors), don’t take your neighbor’s life, don’t take your neighbor’s property, don’t take your neighbor’s spouse, don’t take your neighbor’s reputation, don’t even desire the neighbor’s stuff. This is how we love our neighbor.
For instance, when we run through a week and stuff it so full that we have no time to enjoy the One who made us, Sabbath-breaking is a violation against love – our love for God. When we spin the truth so that we look good and others look bad, it gets in the way of our love of neighbor. You can go through all the commandments this way, and they begin to offer us some real direction.
Therefore – and please remember the “therefore” – therefore the Ten Commandments are all about love. That’s what they teach us to do. Love God, love neighbor. Remember this first: God’s commandments teach us to love. The God who brought us out in love is the God who expects us to love. And therefore, every gift of life-giving instruction comes from the God who loved us first.
(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.
 See the discussion in Romans 7:1-25