Ten Words

Ten Words

Exodus 19:1-6

On the third new moon after the Israelites had gone out of the land of Egypt, on that very day, they came into the wilderness of Sinai. They had journeyed from Rephidim, entered the wilderness of Sinai, and camped in the wilderness; Israel camped there in front of the mountain. 3Then 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: 4You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. 5Now 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, 6but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites.” 

Exodus 20: 

Then God spoke all these words: 2I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery….;

 

Matthew 22: 35 – 39

…one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37He said to him, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38This is the greatest and first commandment. 39And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 

To prepare a message on The Ten Commandments is a tough challenge.  Depending on who is doing the looking they occur two or three times in the Old Testament.  They are found in Exodus 20, Exodus 34 and Deuteronomy 5.

When you start looking closely at them you find interesting things like in Exodus 20 the motive for keeping the Sabbath is based on God’s blessing and will for creation:  “For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it.” In Deuteronomy, however, the motive for keeping the Sabbath is based on Israel’s experience of being rescue from Egyptian bondage: “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.” The former emphasizes the Sabbath as blessing, the latter emphasizes the Sabbath as an institution of justice — the first fair labor law.

Jews, Protestant Christians and Catholics number the versions differently and if you do a careful review you will discover that under the banner of “The Ten Commandments” there are nineteen commands or prohibitions within which some identify 25 instructions.  When the question of what set of words should be placed in public places what is most widely chosen is the Protestant version of Exodus 20.

Two key things need to be established first.  The relationship God establishes with the chosen people always comes first — it is literally primary. The legal stipulations, with its ethical demands on our behavior, comes second — it is literally secondary. In Exodus 19 God says, “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 … you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation”(19:3b-6a).  I love the metaphor of being borne on eagles’ wings.  I sure it must our literalists friends heartburn.

The start of Exodus 20, verses 1-2 — what most Christians refer to as the “prologue” to the Ten Commandments, but which Jews consider the “First Word” — makes the same point: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”

This is really important.  First God establishes a relationship with us. Only then does God make a claim on our behavior.

There are a couple of other things about the law that are good for us to know.

The first is that God did not give the law as a means to salvation. It’s not possible to use the law to earn salvation, to win one’s soul way into heaven.

The second is that God did not give the law as a way to establish a relationship with the people. God established the relationship and then gave the law.

Then there’s this big thing about the Law. It may come as a surprise.  It isn’t about “you,” per se.  God didn’t give us the law in order to make you a better you or me a better me.  The law is not about us — it is about our neighbors. God gives you the law, not so that you can get more spiritual or have your best life now, but so that your neighbor can have her best life now.

Think about it.  Notice how many times God made this point in the Ten Commandments: Do not bear false witness against your neighbor. Do not covet your neighbor’s house. Do not covet your neighbor’s spouse. When it is the day of rest, make sure that all of your neighbors — from yours sons and daughters right down to your sheep and oxen — get to rest just like you do. And, oh yes, the elderly — “your father and your mother” — are still your neighbors too.

Paul makes the same point in Galatians: “The entire law is summed up in a single command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” Paul isn’t saying that if you have warm fuzzy feelings about your neighbor, then you’ve done all that you have to do. Rather, the word that is translated here as “summed up” is similar to the modern economic metaphor of the bottom line, and that can help us understand Paul’s message. Paul is saying: The bottom line of the entire law is that it is about loving the neighbor.

And that’s good news. At least it’s good news for my neighbor. God loves them so much that God tells me not to kill, steal, commit adultery, and so on. And good news for me. God loves me so much that God tells my neighbor not to kill, steal, and so on.

One more thing.  The Ten Commandments are for free people, for people whom God has freed: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” “I bore you on eagles’wings.” These commandments are not meant to limit our freedom by telling us what things we are not free to do (although these laws do precisely that). These commandments are what lives freed in Christ look like. The law shows us what that free life looks like.

In Matthew 22:34-40. Jesus (consistent with first century Rabbinic teaching) declares that two commandments are the greatest: “‘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.’”

This reading has two points. The first point is that the first table of the law can be summarized: Love the Lord your God. And the second table of the law can be summarized: Love your neighbor as yourself. The second point is that the purpose of the commandments is love. We do not keep the commandments for our own pleasure or benefit. Rather, we keep them as a way to love God and our neighbor.

 

 

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