A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on October 5, 2014 (Proper 22, Year A)
“Everything I know about the 10 Commandments, I learned in Sunday School.” Okay, that’s not entirely true. Which means I have just borne false witness. From the pulpit. During a sermon on the 10 Commandments.
But for many of us, there’s at least some truth to this. For generations, almost every Sunday School room in all of Christendom had a yellowing poster board cut into the shape of two tablets bearing the 10 Commandments — five on each side with the requisite Roman numerals.
It’s a classic lesson and we like it because it’s very clear cut. Do this, don’t do that, live happily ever after. Plus parents get a lot of mileage out of the “honor thy mother and father” bit when the cherubs start getting sassy. “Remember what you learned in Sunday School,” we chide — because vague threats are always a great way for kids to connect with their faith. Many of us memorized these commandments even if we didn’t really know what they all meant or got the wording confused. Like the child who was convinced the seventh commandment was “Thou shalt not admit adultery.”
I do think some of the traditional attraction to the 10 Commandments is because so much of faith comes in shades of gray — as with any real relationship, our interaction with and connection to God is complex. But the 10 Commandments, well, it doesn’t get any more black and white than that, right? They’re indelibly chiseled into stone, handed down directly from God, and there’s a certain finality to the Commandments. Obey them and live, disobey them and die. It doesn’t get any more unambiguous than that.
The irony is that despite the fact that one of the commandments states, “You shall not make for yourself an idol” or in the more familiar King James language, “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image,” some have turned the 10 Commandments themselves into an idol; into something to be worshipped in itself rather than something that points back to God.
But that’s not the point. At all. The 10 Commandments are about relationship, they’re not a litmus test. Yet time after time whenever we hear about them in the news they’re the focus of a highly publicized legal squabble. There’s always great drama whenever some group wants to put them up in a public square as some sort of moral guide to the community and some who call themselves Christians use them as stone tablets to metaphorically bash people over the head. Which must please God to no end. It’s no wonder we’ve ended up having such a complicated relationship with the 10 Commandments. We want the commandments themselves, just not the political baggage and not-so-subtle religious bigotry that comes with them.
So we’re wise to remember that these commandments were very much handed down in a particular context. When we yank them out of their original circumstances and erect a freestanding monument next to an American flag, we miss the larger point. They were given to a nomadic people wandering in the wilderness who craved structure, identity, and direction in their relationship with God as mediated through Moses.
So the 10 Commandments themselves were not simply a moral straight jacket, they were meant to help shape and form a people into the image of the God who had created them, freed them, and loved them fiercely. The laws are given to shape the people of Israel into a holy nation, into a people whose identity is based exclusively upon relationship with their God. The laws are a symbol of God’s covenant with the people but they are not the covenant in and of themselves. In other words, the commandments point to relationship. They are a tangible sign that God invites the people to be as devoted to God as God is devoted to them. God loves the people of Israel with fiery passion and expects them to do likewise.
And again when we look at the specific laws, context is key. The command to forsake idols and “have no other gods before me” was poignant because every other tribe or people were doing just that. To not worship a variety of statues and household gods was completely counter-cultural. This emphasis on monotheism was, again, something that set the Israelites apart and formed their identity as God’s Chosen People.
The ethical portion of the Commandments weren’t necessarily new but they were critical to the formation and sustainment of a new community. You needed to establish norms and neighborly practices — don’t steal from one another or lie to one another or cheat on one another or covet one another’s things and for God’s sake don’t kill one another. These are basic best practices for living in a healthy communal environment.
So the 10 Commandments make much less sense when they are disembodied from the text, when they are isolated from the context of God’s covenant with the people of Israel, when they are extracted from the bonds of relationship. Because when we do this, we turn God into some sort of divine finger-wagging parent. The commandments become punitive and we focus on the “though shalt not” vibe. Yes, there are rules and norms we’re urged to follow and obedience is a critical piece of faith. But it’s also important to remember that God is ultimately about blessing not curse, about forgiveness not destruction.
The major problem of proclaiming the 10 Commandments out of context is that it doesn’t leave room for forgiveness or mercy or grace. Jesus, of course, understood all this which is why he offers the “summary of the law” or the greatest commandment. He takes the 10 Commandments and distills everything to the basics “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and soul and love your neighbor as yourself.” I’ve never understood why people don’t fight and bring in lawyers to have the Jesus’ summary of the law put up in public places. It would be a lot cheaper to erect a monument that simply said, “Love God, love neighbor.” Because when we do these two things all the other commandments naturally flow out of our love for God and one another.
That’s the balance Jesus brings into the conversation. He knows we all inevitably break some of these commandments yet he desires repentance, that turning of the heart away from that which destroys and toward that which builds up. We need the law, we need structure — just as a town or city functions more effectively with laws that set expectations and norms. But the relationship is central and when we lose sight of that, we lose our souls.
So the 10 Commandments still speak to us because they flow directly out of the divine relationship — they invite us to model our human interactions on our relationship with God. We should love one another as God loves us. Which is precisely what Jesus tells his disciples to do at the Last Supper — “Love one another as I have loved you.” So it all connects. And Jesus helps move us from “thou shalt not” to “thou shall…love.”
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2014