[First I asked some questions about people’s interactions with the ten commandments and we had a good time of sharing out of that. Then I shared a number of ten commandment-styled lists, such as the ten commandments of facebook.]
The Ten Commandments and Today
Given these lists it seems like the 10 commandments are both a popular thing, but that maybe we have come to a place where they are mostly gone from our collective memory, or they just dont seem important to us anymore.
If theres anything that can be said about Exodus 20 this morning it is that the giving of the divine law by YHWH directly to the people, notice that these 10 are the only portion of the law that YHWH delivers directly to the people, would have been something very grave, something rather traumatic. After all, as soon as God is done with the ten what do they ask Moses to do? They ask him to mediate for them because they are afraid they are going to die. Its like, on second thought maybe we dont really want to know what God has to say in such a upclose and personal way! These traumatically imposed Divine Commandments as one philosopher puts it, bore a great weight for the newly liberate people, but thousands of years later they seem to have very little weight or meaning for us.
Why is that?
Growing up as a young Catholic I interacted with the 10 commandments in a number of ways. I remember having a little card that I would carry around with me, they were very important guide in how I was to act. They were something we needed to memorize for our religions classes and they were especially useful for confession.
I came across this quote from Rose Marie Berger which mirrors some of my experience:
As a child in Catholic schools, I prepared for a good confession by performing what was called an examination of conscience. This primarily consisted of reviewing the Ten Commandments (as summarized in Exodus 20) and keeping a tally of how many Id broken since my last confession. As a third-grader the sins outlined in the commandments were very exoticadultery, murder, and of course coveting your neighbors ass. (I wasnt sure what it meant, but it was fun to say.) My primary sin as a third-grader was a high recidivism rate when it came to failing to honor my father and mother.
I dont know about you but Ive had similar questions, what do these rules have to do with me and its really easy just feel the burden of failing to follow through on these commandments as well? [extrinsic rewards] If weve had a high recidivism rate with the ten words, we are in good company, because so did the main characters of our story this morning. (at least three problems).
One of the main struggles I have is how do the ten words apply today? How are we supposed to interpret them? Do they fit with todays world? One shocking realization is that at some very basic level ours is a society whose economy almost seems based on breaking the at least commandments – not coveting, taking a sabbath rest, and having only one God. People coveting each others things, having a sense of unfulfilled desire, is how we keep people shopping for more. A society based on work rather than rest is how we keep the machine running and a society based not on singularity but on choice will be a society that will always see the first commandment as something meant to limit us rather than offer us freedom.
In fact, we can push much harder on this. One contemporary philosopher has suggested that much of our basic discussions about rights is in fact, ultimately, a right to violate one of the ten commandments.
He puts it like this:
The right to privacy the right to adultery, in secret, where no one sees me or has the right to probe my life. The right to pursue happiness and to posses private property the right to steal (to exploit others). Freedom of the press and of the expression of opinion the right to lie. The right of free citizens to possess weapons the right to kill. And, ultimately, freedom of religious belief the right to worship false Gods. (Zizek The Fragile Absolute 110-111)
The point I want to make is not that rights are necessarily a bad thing but that the very culture we live in drives against any kind of rule, or command, let alone a traumatically imposed divine command. So if you find yourselves wanting to flee from a discussion on the 10 commandments, like me, this may be part of what is going on.
A Measuring Stick?
A second difficulty is that most of people have had these commandments used against them more than for them. Lets face it, the ten commandments plastered across a courthouse is not the way to invite people into an alternative way of living in the world. It is a way to beat people over the head with guidelines that were issued thousands of years ago to a small group of liberated slaves. Its a way to say my religion is right and yours is wrong. In other words, weve too often tried to make these our universal measuring stick, and all too often Christians have used that measuring stick to make themselves look better than others.
Finally, as society shifts away from the authority of tradition and a sense of interconnectedness and moves more towards the individual self and individual interpretation of these things, we see a shift away from a life that is rooted in the big story of who God is and how God desires us to interact with one another and the world. Today we see a freed self in the sense that we have no rootedness to tradition, no bigger story than what I choose to do to make myself happy. This is a self, freed from the commands to care for the Other, freed from the pursuit of the common good of humanity. This self is now given access to achieve Whatever it is I so desire. And At whatever or whomevers cost I see fit.
The ten words, as we will see, stand in opposition to this view of the world.
The Rule of the Community
When we read something like Exodus 20, and we work out some of the problems we know that hover over them, we can begin to see that these ten words still have power not as words imposed on us, but as words inviting us into a new way or rule. These commandments, these words, are not disconnected, they are not abstract universals of judgement, they are not up to my own interpretation and tailor-making, they are an access point, and invitation into an alternative history and tradition of liberation.
The ten words are for an alternative community that from its very inception had these guidelines to ensure that it always remained a liberating community rather than an oppressing one.
The 10 commandments are the rule of life for the liberated community.
Exodus is the story of the Hebrew people liberated from oppression not into absolute freedom of self-expression and individuality, not freed from the responsibility to care for the Other, but liberated into an alternative expression of how YHWH intended the world to look when he created it and it was good. They were liberated from domination, into a world where these 10 words guided a community of fidelity to one God, rest, life, equality, and sharing.
If these words are a stick, they are not a measuring stick, but a walking stick, meant to guide the path that would ultimately form this community of people.
They are an implicit celebration of new life and new possibilities as well as implicit critique and opposition to the domination of the world around it.
A Counter-Claim to Empire
These 10 words stand for the liberated community living into their own liberation in a way that keeps them from becoming oppressors. But upon their utterance from the lips of the divine, they also stand as a critique against Pharoahs entire political and economic system. These 10 words are a counter-claim to the way of empire. You can, and I think we should, read each of these 10 words as a critique against Pharoahs way of business as usual.
For instance, to have image-less worship was in contrast to the way Pharoahs empire work.
Images were not only human made, but consider whose images are usually portrayed? And consider who has access to making those images? For the ten words to do away with this is to undercut the connection between political power and religion in society.
Or consider Pharoahs economic practices of storing up surplus on the backs of enslaved people from Exodus 1.
Then consider the contrasting law (concerning the Sabbath) from Exodus 20 (and Deut. 5):
And also the 10th law on Coveting — which is also about surplus, hoarding, often at the expense of those who cannot gather or on the backs of the enslaved.
These guidelines are rules of life for the liberation community which experienced the exact opposite in Egypt. One OT scholar writes:
Having Rejected the previous social organization, Egypt becomes a foil for YHWH (and his commandments). They can now build anew, something life-giving, something based out of the Hebrew experience (Ceresko).
Pharoahs Egypt is the dirty word here, it is what is obscene, what is to be avoided at all cost.
Thus to break one of these ten commandments, to sin as we might say, has a different kind of texture to it than we are used to. In this context sin is a rupture within the liberation narrative, it is to act as oppressor (Pharoah) rather than liberator (YHWH). It is a misdirection that defeats the common good. To sin in this context is to unjustice that hinders Gods restorative right and activity in Jesus Christ.
Jesus and The Ten Commandments of Love
And speaking of Jesus. If I recall, he had something to say about the ten words as well.
Jesus said that the commandments can be summed up as a loving fidelity to God, and loving others. Freed from the bounds of oppression the liberated community is now open to a new possibility and that possibility is love. When we are bound, oppressed by external or internal things, love is often impossible or undesirable. When we are the ones who dominate and oppress we act in contradiction to love as with the Pharaoh. But when we are freed by Gods liberating grace from ourselves, from the dominance of others, from hatred and hurt, from cyclical behaviors that we might describe as the kind of sin mentioned above, we are freed into something new, liberated for some new possibility. And the biblical story tells us that we are liberated into love, liberated by love and liberated for love.
This is the Gospel news if Ive ever heard it. To be freed free to love with no need for extrinsic reward, but to love because we have first experienced that love and freedom ourselves by Gods own love and grace and then to experience that within the liberated community is what transforms individuals and societys away from Pharoahs empire and into an alternative community. Here if these 10 words have meaning for the church it is when they become the 10 words of love.
When Jesus says the law can be summed up by love of God and love of Other this is not to limit them, or sweep them off the table, it does not get us off the hook or free us from the care of our neighbors but actually sink it deep within our hearts, into our very being. It becomes not just a law on stone tablets, but the inner law of the soul. That is love and each of these ten words open up a new possibility for love for us and for our community. The ten words teach us that love of God and love of Other is the primary means to happiness and fulfilment in this life. They are the means, the true vehicle to freedom and liberation.