Cue the Commandment jokes. They’re omnipresent. So if it’s not Mel Brooks breaking 5 of the 15, then it’s the line that the Commandments can’t be posted in a courthouse because saying “thou shall not lie, not steal” in a building with lawyers, judges, and politicians, as George Carlin said, creates a hostile work environment. Or even the tongue-in-cheek statement that they’re not the 10 Suggestions.
So if we take these as the Big Ten and expect that they somehow indeed are supposed to shape our lives, guide every action of our behavior, where do we begin to take them seriously?
It might be worth noting first how timeless they really are, compared with a lot in our Old Testament that’s not very useful in our time and place—regulations about stonings or sacrifices or instructions for worship furniture. These Commandments came from a moment of exodus, on the way out of slavery under Pharaoh, before entering freedom and new life in the Promised Land. They are guides, creating what that community, that nation would be. Yet they’re still able to function in a substantial way for us with life in our community, our nation.
That constancy makes it all the more interesting to notice the flexibility. Excuse the pun, but the Commandments aren’t exactly written in stone. There are three different times God gives the Commandments: this first one. Then in Exodus 34, after Moses has come down from Mount Sinai and found that the people made the golden calf, he got so peeved he smashed the tablets, and so God had to write out a second set. Then in the book of Deuteronomy, which means “repetition of the law,” the version there actually changes. Women made at least a small improvement, no longer grouped with the donkeys and oxen and rest of the livestock and implements, there at least the women head the list and stand alone in the 9th Commandment as “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife.”
That also raises the issue that God didn’t number the list clearly. Presbyterians count them differently than we do. (Following Augustine and our Catholic history, we don’t count graven images or making idols as 1 of the 10, but instead split coveting into double emphasis.) In Jewish rank, the 1st Commandment or 1st “word” of importance, is the line, “I am the LORD your God who brought you out of slavery.” So we could break the list into 12 Commandments, though the other two places specifically label them as the “10 words.”
As we are trying to organize our lists, it might make us further wonder how we rank the Commandments, with what is most important. I often hear parents emphasizing #4, as a little reminder that God tells their children they ought to honor and respect them.
Martin Luther said that #1 was most important, because if you could rightly fear, love, and trust God, then the rest would just fall into place.
Here during summer, there might be extra reason to pick out #3. You might claim that you need some summer vacation as rest time, as sabbath to relax. And Tim and I would argue back that #3 is also about observing holy days, which means that your vacations should not be a vacation from the worshipping community, that you need to be in church and only by being here will you get closer to #1 and having the rest of life follow in good order.
Again, continuing to ask what is most important in the Commandments, the topic was brought for us today from our Pick-a-Verse box with an emphasis on #5, “You shall not murder.” Yet you may feel you’re doing alright on that one, but if you’ve been robbed, you may want to highlight #7 on not stealing property. Or if somebody is spreading rumors about you, you may feel strongly about #8 on keeping your good reputation and honor.
(With that, we might pause and notice a way that the Commandments are organized. Overall, there’s a section about how we relate to God, and then a section on relating to each other. In that second grouping, parents stand as a level above, representative of all other subsequent authority, like government. Then the remaining 6 about how we relate to each other go in a descending order. Do not take a person’s life. Do not take the thing closest to a person’s life, that is taking away their spouse in adultery. Do not take away their physical, material goods. Do not take away their emotional, intangible property, that is don’t take their reputation by falsehoods. And finally, don’t even wish to take away from them by coveting.)
Yet that blanket statement to conclude—the prohibition of coveting as trying to control your own thoughts—shows what quickly seems like a larger problem. Where you may feel like you can put the brakes on killing somebody, still how can you stop a thought from entering your mind? It seems doomed for failure, that it’s inevitable that you’ll break the Commandment, maybe frequently.
That point actually also becomes clear with the other Commandments. So most of you haven’t murdered anybody lately (I hope). But this Commandment isn’t only about serial killers. What if it’s a traffic accident? What if you didn’t kill them but injured them, which may eventually shorten their life? What if you scared them half to death?
What if you’re part of a society that uses drones to bomb people and your tax dollars give missiles to Israelis? What if you didn’t help feel a hungry child, or what if the hungry child needs more? Or what if what the child really needed was medicine, or a mosquito net, or education, or a compliment?
Or, noticing that the Commandment doesn’t specify narrowly and say “don’t murder humans,” then what if you include dogs, or bugs you swat, or polar bears on melting ice caps?
You can try to argue there’s a scale, and that some of these things are less bad than others, but the point is that they all fall under the umbrella of taking life away. It may lead to ethical quandaries of when death is inevitable, or if we could even say it’s necessary. How, indeed, do we resolve questions of abortion, or of war, or of the food we eat, or of what to do with detained immigrant children at the border, and on and on.
It all means two things. First, you can’t so quickly say you’ve kept the Commandments, since there isn’t a scale of “only-sort-of-half-break” you really do break them rather repeatedly. You simply are a sinner. But, second, this guides you to be more considerate, that you should be more thoughtful about your actions, that you attend to trying harder.
What we’re noticing is that the law gets used in a couple ways. It restricts bad behavior, but it also motivates better behavior. I had a seminary professor who said the law is 95% effective in getting you to act the way you should. Mostly it stops you from hurting your neighbor too badly.
But not always. Sometimes you don’t listen, and then there needs to be some sort of repercussions, otherwise the law is worthless, the Commandments would be toothless and untruthful.
For example, the speed limit is set for safety. If you stay in those limits, if you obey the law, then you’re working for safety, for yourself and others, for the order of society. But when you transgress the limit, when you go outside the law, when you speed, then a repercussion may be the flashing lights and a ticket, or it may be an accident and injury. We know all-too-well these things can have enormous, life-changing consequences. It’s pretty easy to see the ramifications affecting three or four generations, as God indicated in the Bible reading.
In our language, we may not deem it punishment from God for the sin of breaking a Commandment. Instead, we’d more likely say we have to deal with the consequences of our actions, and may also suffer due to others’ misbehavior or transgressions.
But that does raise a broader picture of God for us. God cares about life, about your life and life in community. The structure and order, the rules are for the sake of that going well. And really, as the expansiveness of a promise of love to thousands of generations indicates, there is nothing that can finally or completely separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
So you should act well. You should follow these rules that are for your good and your neighbor’s. You should also, then, be disappointed and remorseful when you fail and fall short. But through it all, you should trust a God whose intention for life is so much bigger.
This is why we’ll turn again to the font in just a moment. Jack Andrew is going to be baptized. With that, his parents vow they will teach him to obey the Commandments and he’ll grow and become part of society. But before has a chance to break or to keep the Commandments, before he proves that he’s going to try to follow the law and not be a murderer, before we know any of the details of what’s to come in his life and actions, God already makes a promise of unconditional love and eternal life. Maybe it’s easier to believe when he’s little and adorable, but it’s true no matter what. Through it all, he will be a beloved child of God.
And really, being grounded in that identity and nurtured by that love is what will best set him on the right path. And you, too. Amen
Hymn: This is How God Speaks