Oct. 8, 2017
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20
If you preach weekly for 16 years, and monthly for another three years, and you adjust for vacations and weekends off, and you save all those sermons on your computer, you’re likely to have roughly 750 sermons saved on file, which I do. It’s useful to have those sermons to refer back to; they can help prime the pump for this next sermon you have to write, get the creative juices flowing, offer an Illustration that may still be helpful, or when the fresh word of God isn’t coming to you with great clarity those older versions are available to be reworked into a new preaching moment.
That’s all to say that since starting to preach in 1998 I’ve just discovered that I’ve never once preached a sermon on the 10 Commandments. Part of my reason, I believe, is that I’ve not really understood Christianity’s relationship with the 10 Commandments. Why do we value them above the rest of the biblical law that is available for us to read? There are tons of laws that we are free to think of as irrelevant, but why not these ones?
Plus, Paul talks quite a bit about the law, about how it served its purpose for a time, but how with Christ the time has changed, how the law can’t save you, how our moral code is rooted now in the indwelling of Christ and the transformation brought upon us by God’s Holy Spirit.
And then, of course, Christ talks about fulfilling the law. He talks about how all the law and all the prophets get boiled down to loving your God with all your heart and soul and mind, and loving your neighbor as you love yourself.
I’ve also worried a bit that clinging to the 10 Commandments as a guide for faith is kind of a way of reducing faith to something easier, less personal, and less dynamic than an actual relationship with an actual living God. We say, “Well, if I follow these 10 rules then I must be in pretty good standing with God, and as long as I’m passing God’s test then I guess that’s good enough.”
I have a Buddhist friend with whom I was discussing meditation. I mentioned the popular trend of “mindfulness” that I had been noticing, and he told me (to my surprise) that mindfulness wasn’t actually thought of all that highly by the Buddhists. He said, “We’ve found that you can be very mindful and still act like a complete jerk.” I’ve kind of thought of the 10 Commandments that way as well. You can refrain from stealing, murdering, and committing adultery and still be fairly rotten. The reverse is also true, I believe. The world’s saints are pretty much always sinners also.
Part of what makes thinking about the 10 Commandments confusing is that we hear them personally. It’s hard not to, but we hear them as instructions that we are meant to follow for the benefit of our own personal, moral standing. By the standard of these 10 rules we gauge our goodness, as if individual personal goodness were the “end” that God is seeking. But, I would suggest that the commandments were originally received in a somewhat different way. Though, of course, commands are either followed or not followed by individuals who are personally making decisions about them, God’s good end in giving the commandments was the creation and governance of a moral community, a group of individuals who weren’t so easily distinguished from the collective.
So, take the adultery commandment. Today’s assumed interpretation is that if you’ve committed adultery you’ve sinned and broken your marriage covenant. The concern is primarily personal. The biblical understanding, however, was slightly different. If you slept with another man’s wife, which is how adultery was defined, you broke their marriage covenant. And, a community simply cannot survive if its members dishonor one another’s commitments. The concern, beyond personal culpability, was the deterioration of community.
The first four commandments are commonly called tablet 1. They focus on our relationship with God as a particular kind of God with a particular requirement of loyalty. This is not a god among many other gods, as was common in that time. This was the one God, the one who freed you from oppression, the one who provides for you in the wilderness, the one who makes from your communal witness a light to all the nations. The tablet addresses a community that would pledge allegiance to one thing and one thing only, and that is God.
Tablet 2, or the remaining 6 commandments, tell this God-following community how to remain a community that is capable of modeling for the world a Godly alternative to the exploitative, destructive (non God-like) ways by which we are tempted to operate.
Keeping Sabbath is an interesting one. It’s interesting, in part, because I don’t think it is one that we take all that seriously. The assumed interpretation is that God wants us to take some time to rest, to pause all the busyness, to reconnect with God, to remember who we are. While I believe that there is incredible, life-sustaining, even life-giving, value in doing just that, the intent has more to do with a collective witness and the power of that witness to confront the world with a more Godly vision of people. In a world of constant production and consumption, where people are often reduced to the function they serve, a collective rest says, “We are honored because we are made in God’s image (not made of money); we want you to join us so that you too might know whose image you are made in.” According to professor Walter Brueggemann, it’s a way of disengaging “from the systems of productivity whereby the world uses people up to exhaustion.” It’s a way for the community to show that our human doing is properly rooted in our human dignity, and not the other way around.
“Bearing false witness” is another good one. Here’s how Brueggemann explains it. “This commandment is not concerned with ‘white lies,’ but the public portrayal of reality that is not excessively skewed by self-interest or party ideology… The commandment enjoins members of the covenant community not to distort reality to each other. The major pertinence of the prohibition in our society is the collapse of truth into propaganda…”
Brueggemann published these words back in 1994 not knowing how relevant they would be today, not knowing how deeply divided our culture would be over the discernment of what is factual, not knowing the extent to which political and ideological commitments would determine the way we narrate reality. Some argue that we are currently living in a post-fact or post-truth society because we’ve found it to be impossible to separate information from agenda. More and more we end up seeking information for its ability to serve our agenda and not to shape it. More and more we don’t know if we are bearing false witness or not, and without a doubt our sense of community erodes because of it.
Our gospel passage serves as a good example. Those working in the vineyard have come to believe that the vineyard belongs to them. Therefore, they feel justified in taking the life of anyone who would rob them of it. They have lost their way; they have corrupted their own story; and they have become what they were not meant to be.
Our scriptures today remind us not that we have rules with which to judge ourselves; but rather, we have a unique truth to shape who we are together. We have a God of salvation, a God of liberation and restoration, a peace-making, life-affirming, God to whom we are called to be loyal before all other competing interests. And, we have one another with whom to practice God’s ways so that when the world seeks hope it knows where to turn.
 New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 1, page 846.
 Ibid, page 851.