Many of a certain generation will remember the scene from the Mel Brooks film History of the World: Part I, when Moses stands atop Mount Sinai looking down upon the Hebrews with three large stone tablets balanced precariously in his hands. Moses (played by Brooks himself, of course) says to the Israelites, “Oh, hear me! All pay heed! The Lord, the Lord Jehovah, has given unto you these fifteen…” At which point Moses drops one of the three tablets, and it shatters. He pauses sheepishly, mumbles “Oy,” and then says, “Ten! Ten commandments for all to obey!”
In 2006, Georgia Congressman Lynn Westmoreland sponsored a bill declaring that the Ten Commandments are “fundamental principles” and “the cornerstone of a just and fair society.” Congressman Westmoreland’s bill would also have required that the Ten Commandments be prominently displayed in the U.S. Capitol Building.[i] In an interview, Westmoreland explained, “Well, the Ten Commandments is not a bad thing for people to understand and respect. Where better could you have something like that than a judicial building or a courthouse?”
Whether or not one agrees with the placement of religious monuments on public property, surely most would agree with the
Congressman’s sentiment about understanding and respecting such a foundational part of our religious and cultural tradition. So far, so good.
But then the interviewer asked the obvious follow-up: “What are the Ten Commandments? Can you name them all?”
For just a split second, Congressman Westmoreland looked stupefied, as if it never occurred to him that the interview might take such a turn. He then responded, “What are all of them? You want me to name them all?” (A pregnant pause.) “Don’t murder; don’t lie; don’t steal…Um…I can’t name them all.”[ii]
The point is that the Ten Commandments, like so much else in religious life in different eras and at different places, have themselves become a fetish, a symbol of something that bears very little relationship to the content of the commandments themselves. It seems to me that if we take the good Congressman at his word that the Ten Commandments are a cornerstone of a just and fair society, that they deserve our understanding and respect, then the first step is not to chisel them in marble and set them on the courthouse lawn but to know what they say and, with God’s help, follow them.
So, today’s sermon is going to be a bit different from the norm. No narrative story-telling; no attempt at deep theologizing; no soaring words that seek to inspire. Instead, we’re going to look at the Ten Commandments. We’ll consider what they actually say and why they might matter in our lives.
At the outset, it is important to remember the context in which God issues these commandments. The Israelites have just been redeemed from bondage in Egypt. After many generations of slavery, they are free, and yet they have no idea what it looks like to live as a free people who serve under no one’s arbitrary yoke. God grants the Ten Commandments not as a stifling burden, but as the broad, corralling boundaries within which the life of free people can be lived in mutuality, respect, and joy. They intend to provide for us the same.
We’ll save the first three commandments for the end. The fourth commandment is “Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy.” Throughout most of human history, when labor was grinding, back-breaking and incessant, the sabbath day was, literally, life-saving. It gave the body time to heal and restore its energy. But in today’s world the sabbath is equally crucial. We are workaholics. With email, cell phones, and social media, our work creeps into every facet of our lives, including the dinner table and bedroom. And this phenomenon includes not only our paid labor. Even our recreation increasingly has a job-like quality to it (think: kids’ sports). In everything, we want to accomplish, achieve, and do more. Consequently, we are perpetually fatigued, physically, psychologically, and emotionally. We are weary, but we do not rest. God understands our human need, and God commands us to observe sabbath. Imagine how different our lives would be if, for twenty-four hours a week, we shed the need to do and concentrated on being: being present to ourselves, to God, and to those we love. If nothing else, our blood pressure would benefit from the change.
The fifth commandment is “Honor your father and mother.” In our psychological age, this one can trip us up because, frankly, some among us endured bad fathers and mothers. Healing psychologically from abuse can be a lifelong effort. But even for such people, the importance of the fifth commandment is the reminder that none of us is entirely self-made. Where we love, we have learned from someone to love. Where we have advantage, we have benefitted from someone who sacrificed to grant us that advantage. It is our sacred responsibility to maintain a posture of remembrance and response to the generation from which we have sprung, not to ignore its faults and flaws, but to nevertheless acknowledge our gratitude by granting it grace.
The behavioral commandments come next. They are basic and unassailable, which is exactly why humanity has always been mystified at its inability to keep them.
The breadth of the sixth commandment—”Do not murder”—is a topic of endless theological debate. Some believe it intends a blanket prohibition against all killing; others believe it is more specific, referring to unlawful killing while acknowledging in our broken world that there are circumstances of justice that require the taking of a life by appropriate authorities. In either case, the commandment demands that life belongs to God and not us, that life—all life, not only the lives of those we love—is to be treated with awe and reverence.
The seventh commandment, “Do not commit adultery,” could not be clearer, it seems to me. A priest once said to me, “Half the world’s problems would be solved if people would not have sexual relations with people to whom other people are married.” Let that sink in for a moment before we move on.
The eighth commandment, “Do not steal” means do not take as your own those things that are not yours, or are not yours entirely. In our world, with our sometimes scarcity of resources, this is doubly important. Failure to share those things we hold in common is another form of theft, as surely as theft is me pick-pocketing your wallet.
The tenth commandment, “Do not covet your neighbor’s house,” concerns “the destructive power of desire.”[iii] Though it comes later in the list, it is the precursor to “Do not steal.” If one indulges a covetousness for what belongs to another, then over times one will rationalize stealing that thing, through either unlawful or lawful means.
Sandwiched between these two is the ninth commandment against bearing false witness. This does not mean lying-in-general. It refers to claiming as true a depiction of reality one knows is false. The commandment prohibits falsely marring another’s reputation, either in malice or ignorance. It condemns distorting the truth to prop up one’s ideology. I wish Congressman Westmoreland and all his colleagues on both sides of the aisle would learn this commandment most of all.
The Ten Commandments begin with the most important three, which are prioritized even before the laws against murder and theft. The commandments begin with God saying, “You shall have no other gods before me…You shall not make for yourself an idol…You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God.” These three commands are the backdrop of the other seven. They tell us that we must not consider God peripherally, casually, or flippantly. We must not use God or God’s name as a tool, a means to our own ends. The theologian Paul Tillich famously said that our god that that in which we place our ultimate concern. We could each ask ourselves, “What is my god? To what do I give my greatest attention, energy, money? What is my ultimate concern in my daily life?” If the answer is anything but the God of love, then our lives are askew. All of the other commandments will then be more difficult to keep, because love is in not the center, the core from which all our living extends.
To live as a free people, in ancient Israel and today, means to live attentive to, grounded by, and centered in the God of love. When we are so, we will care for ourselves with rest; we will respect those from whom we’ve come; we will honor the vows to our loved ones; we will revere life; we will be satisfied with enough in life; and we will speak the truth to ourselves and others. This is not bondage; it is freedom. It is the gift to us from the God of love and the invitation to live our lives in God.
[iii] “Exodus,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 1, pg. 849.