Then God spoke all these words:
I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.
You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.
You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.
Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. For six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 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.
Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.
You shall not murder.
You shall not commit adultery.
You shall not steal.
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.
A Promise to Live By: Exodus 20:1-17
Did you know that there are more than ten commandments? Really. In Christian churches, most of the time we just talk about these first ten. In Jewish tradition, there are another 603 commandments spread throughout the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy. It is all of these commandments together that make up what is called "the law." This word "law" doesn't really mean the same thing it means in modern usage. In Hebrew, the word is "torah." A scholar I read this week named Nyasha Junior says that torah is often better translated as "instruction" than "law." If we think of these words as instructions on how to live a life instead of laws we break at our own peril, we may get closer to their original intent. These words were not simply pronouncements from on high. These ten instructions are the first in a long list of instructions from God on how to live a life well. These ten instructions are simply the introduction to all the rest. They point us to a covenantal way of living with God and with one another.
According to Dr. Junior, this set of instructions from God is really about forming patterns of living shaped by respect for everyone, God and neighbor, with whom we are in relationship. We won't talk about all 613 instructions. I can tell that you are relieved. That would be a really long sermon and they aren't all in this one reading any way. Since these are the first ten instructions given to the Israelites during Exodus and the ten that get most attention within Christian circles, it makes sense to spend some time on how these particular instructions can help us to build patterns of respect into our daily lives. That probably means we need to pay attention to how this set of instructions starts out. The author declares that God spoke these words, these instructions, and God began with this important reminder: "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery." These words should shape how we read the whole rest of the list.
I read a scholar named Terrence Fretheim this week and he asserts that if we forget the context of these first ten instructions, we miss their purpose. When we read these words, we should read them through the lens of redemption and promise. These instructions are best situated within a relationship between God and the people God has redeemed. These instructions are not simply free-floating good ideas, like how you should wash your hands after you go to the bathroom, or laws set up by a governmental body, like the laws that govern how fast you should drive down Main Street. They are instructions for you for being in right relationship with your God who redeemed you. They are at once deeply personal and deeply communal, connecting each person's history of redemption to the story of redemption of their people. It is a reminder that God did something for you, and now, you are invited to live your life as a reflection of that redemption. Dr. Fretheim calls this "giving a commandment shape" to one's life.
So, then, rooted in redemption and promise of God, how do we read the rest? Jesus once said all of the law can be winnowed down to love God the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. I think this is a helpful shorthand for these ten instructions, too. What does it mean to love God? For one, it means that you will follow this God. That means not just avoiding following other gods like Baal or Bast, but also not making other things into a god. Money, property, fame, power... none of these things can be central to your devotion. Love, trust, and fear God above all things. But, don't be too narrow in your understanding of God. God is always bigger than you can imagine.
People are called to use God's name properly, too. Originally, this may have meant not to use God's name in divination rituals or magic outside of their tradition. I'd say we probably shouldn't use God's name to justify shaming or wounding other people. Too often, these instructions get used as a hammer. I don't think they were intended to be weaponized. Another part of loving God is mirroring God's own actions by taking a time of Sabbath. Set that time aside, away from work, and keep it for cultivating a relationship with God. You are God's. Your labor should be God's, too, and should be shaped by your commitment to the covenant. Just as you won't make things that aren't God, into gods, you won't allow your labor to overshadow your relationships.
Love this particular God but not in narrow or harmful ways. Giving your worship and your work to this God. That's what it means to love God. What does it mean, then, to love people as God commands? This half of the ten instructions begins with the relationships that are often closest to a person, the relationships in one's family. Develop a healthy relationship with your parents. Love them as God loved you. That probably means parents need to work on having a healthy relationship with their kids, too. There is a sacred trust in this relationship that should be nurtured.
The rest of the instructions on how to cultivate covenant in human relationship hold truth both within in the bounds of family and beyond. Do not murder. Do not break the bonds of trust in other families. Do not steal from or lie about your neighbors. And, don't waste your time in jealousy over your neighbor's possessions and relationships. Jealousy, called coveting here, is pointless in the covenant. Jealousy presumes that there is a finite amount of goods and good relationship available to people. God want us to know that there is already enough. We don't have to grasp at what others have just to make sure we will survive. Remember, these instructions were given during the time in the desert. People were worried about having enough all the time. This final instruction of the first ten reminds them that they don't have to. God will provide for them as God has always provided for them.
I would like to make a short digression in the whole coveting conversation. Wives are treated as property to be grasped at in this verse. That... is not great. But, Dr. Fretheim noted that when this list is reiterated in Deuteronomy 5:21, the wife is no longer listed as part of the property, but instead as a participant in the covenant with her own specific instruction. Apparently, these instructions shifted under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and the changing needs of the time. We should all thank God for that. I wonder what the next spirit-filled change needs to be?
A couple years ago, when I last preached on these first ten pieces of instruction given to Israel in the desert, I talked about how some scholars read them as a gift to the people at a time when the people were desperately in need of guidance for creating a new life outside of slavery. I still think that's an important way to read them. This set of instructions, yet one more covenant with the people, was their new pattern. They were a redeemed people. The world would be redeemed through them. They could participate in that redemption by living in accordance with God's instructions. Here's how scholar Elizabeth Webb explain's it: "The Ten Commandments, and the books of law that follow, are meant to form Israel as a sacred community, a community rooted in right worship of God and living in justice and peace with one another. The Israelites are to live as neighbors to one another, the foundation of which is knowing the God to whom they belong." She says it is here, at Sinai, where God gives the people the instructions for how to live in the harmony for which they were created. When we read these first instructions, we are invited to remember that this is what humanity is created for: communities of love and justice rooted in God's redemption.
This set of instructions is a gift from God and the Jewish forbears of Christianity. As we modern Christians seek to follows Jesus' call to love God and love neighbor, we would do well to remember these words of instruction and covenant. As Fretheim says, these words remind us that how we think about God shapes how we relate to our neighbors. May we remember that our God is rooted in redemption, not destruction. May we also live out that redemption in how we engage with the world around us. What instructions are helping you live into your own redemption on this day?
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following sources when writing this sermon:
Terrence Fretheim: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3604
Elizabeth Webb: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1224
Nyasha Junior, "Third Sunday in Lent, Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year B Featuring 22 New Holy Days for Justice, eds Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm, Ronald J. Allen, And Dale P. Andrews (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011)
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.