Carlos Wilton, March 11, 2012; 3rd Sunday in Lent, Year B; Exodus 20:1-17; Romans 3:19-31
“Then God spoke all these words: I am the Lord your God…”
– Exodus 20:1a
The boys knew they shouldn’t be doing it. They were supposed to be studying the Talmud. Still, when one of them pulled out a checkerboard and a box of checkers, they all gathered around, to see who would win.
None of them noticed the tall, silent figure standing in the doorway until it was too late. It was the worst possible person to find them there, distracted from their studies. It wasn’t just one of their parents. It wasn’t even one of the Hebrew teachers. It was none other than the rabbi himself.
Swift as could be, the checkers disappeared from the board, into their box. The board was folded up and squirreled away in a backpack. In a snap, the boys were back at their desks, heads buried in their books. None of them dared look up, to catch the rabbi’s eye. He just stood there, in the doorway of the classroom, silently looking at them, the miserable offenders.
It seemed an eternity before he spoke. “You should not be ashamed,” he said. “You need to learn that you can study the law wherever you can find it. Can any of you tell me the three laws of the game of checkers?
The boys all knew how to play the game, of course, but none was so bold as to instruct the rabbi, who was the most learned man they knew.
“I think you all know the answer to my question. The laws of checkers are three. First, you must never make two moves at once. Second, you may move only forward, not backward. And third, when you have reached the last row, you may move wherever you like. Such,” he said, “is what the Torah teaches.” Then, without saying another word, he turned and left.
It was only later, as they spoke with each other about the things the rabbi had said, that the students began to grasp his message.
First, you should not clutter your life with more than one move at a time. Choose your course well, and devote your whole self to it.
Second, never lose sight of your goal, which is to move forward.
Third, when you finish the journey of obedience, when you reach the last row, there is truly nowhere you cannot go.
A wise teacher, that rabbi. Wise to find a lesson not only in the dry and dusty textbooks, but also in the stuff of everyday life. For that is where you and I live. And that is where God meets us.
There is nothing more practical, by way of guidance for living, than the list of laws from Exodus 20 we just read. It is, of course, the Ten Commandments.
There’s been a lot in the news in recent years concerning the Ten Commandments. It’s remarkable how a law code more than 3,000 years old can still call forth such lively debate. Remember, a few years back, when there was that kerfuffle about whether a monument displaying the Ten Commandments could be displayed in the rotunda of Alabama’s state Judicial Building? Some argued that the commandments are the foundation of Western jurisprudence, so they should be accorded a place of honor. Others said no, to locate such a monument so prominently in a public building violates the separation of church and state. The courts ruled with the separation-of-church-and-state crowd. The monument had to be removed.
This ruling made Judge Roy Moore, chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, one very unhappy camper. He was determined to keep his Ten Commandments monument in the courthouse. Judge Moore traveled all around the country, speaking against the separation of church and state.
On those speaking tours, Judge Moore typically brought his Ten Commandments monument along with him, as a visual aid. This was no mean feat, because it weighed no less than 5,280 pounds. In case you’re counting, that’s just over 500 pounds per commandment. The judge needed a flatbed truck to transport it, along with a 5-ton crane to lift it off the truck. Those who witnessed this procedure described how the crane visibly buckled under the weight.
Tom Long, preaching professor at Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, had some fun with the image of Judge Moore’s stone slab. In article, he wondered whether this was maybe giving folks the wrong idea about the Commandments:
“In the popular religious consciousness, the Ten Commandments have somehow become burdens, weights and heavy obligations. For many, the commandments are encumbrances placed on personal behavior. Most people cannot name all 10, but they are persuaded that at the center of each one is a finger-wagging ‘thou shalt not.’ For others, the commandments are heavy yokes to be publicly placed on the necks of a rebellious society. For such an understanding of the [Commandments], a two-and-a-half-ton rock sitting on the bed of a truck is a perfect symbol. We’ve forgotten that the Babylonians’ gods were heavy idols that had to be trucked around.” [The Christian Century, March 7, 2006.]
Ironic, isn’t it – especially since the First and Second Commandments are a prohibition against idol-worship!
“You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth…”
To many ears, this commandment sounds seriously outdated – until, that is, we expand it to include any sort of item that becomes the subject of our worship. With that, the field is opened up wide, to include such ever-popular items as money, power and fame.
“You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God” – or, as we used to say, “You shall not take the name of the Lord in vain.” This is more than just cleaning up that potty-mouth. It’s a relic of an earlier society that never mentioned their Lord by name – no, not ever. Yahweh, the divine name, was typically written in Hebrew characters without vowel points, so it was literally unpronounceable. Fans of the Harry Potter books know the villain, Lord Voldemort, as “He That Must Not Be Named.” Well, for the ancient Israelites, it was God who “must not be named.” Draw too close to the fire of divine goodness by naming it, and you just might get singed.
“Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy.” What is wrong with this picture, when it comes to our modern society? A few of us still remember the notorious “blue laws,” that protected Sunday peace and quiet by making sure certain businesses stayed closed. Those days are so far gone, it seems almost laughable. Yet, just because society no longer honors the Sabbbath doesn’t mean we can’t.
Those first four commandments govern the relationship between human beings and God. The next six have to do with our relationships with other people.
“Honor your father and your mother.” This is a commandment that upholds the structure of society itself. The ancients probably didn’t understand it as we do: to be talking about one father and one mother, in a nuclear family. Sure, it includes that, but it also refers to all the generations of ancestors that have gone before. “A wandering Aramean was my father,” begins that ancient Hebrew confession of faith, referring to the patriarch, Jacob, who lived many centuries before. There’s a sense of immediacy there: yes, I have a father, but in a greater sense, Jacob is my father. This commandment boils down to: “Remember who you are.”
“You shall not murder” – or, as some write it, “You shall not kill.” This is the sin of Cain, who slew his brother, Abel.
“You shall not commit adultery.” Honor the marriage bond, restraining any impulse that would take you beyond it.
“You shall not steal.” Hands off what doesn’t belong to you.
“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” Tell the truth.
“You shall not covet…” This last one is probably the most frequently ignored of the Ten Commandments, in our culture. A certain covetousness is built into every advertising campaign, large or small, and nobody thinks twice about it. Business people routinely speak about creating a demand for their products, without ever raising the question of whether the demand is healthy (the assumption seems to be that if it makes a profit, it is).
Also, rather oddly (to our ears), the list of things not to covet, that “belong” to one’s neighbor, lump the neighbor’s wife in there, along with the livestock and various and sundry items of personal property, including slaves.
We can’t, of course, take the Tenth Commandment to justify slavery, nor uphold an understanding of women’s role as little more than slaves, as was true in ancient Israel. Those were features of that society the biblical text merely takes for granted. For us, they can become a kind of smokescreen that may cause us to miss the main point – which is that we all need to fight the tendency to become captured by desire for things we cannot have.
My point is, as Tom Long says in that quotation I shared earlier about Judge Moore and his 5,000-pound stone slab, there’s a tendency to overly emphasize the “Thou shalt nots” in the Commandments. That leads to an impression, in the eyes of many outside the church, that the Christian life is a somber, guilt-ridden denial of a great many things in the world that are good.
On the contrary, we can just as easily take each commandment and rework its language so it displays a positive character.
• The prohibitions against idolatry have to do with ascribing proper honor to God.
• Not taking the Lord’s name in vain has to do with upholding the majesty and power of God.
• “Remember the Sabbath day” is already worded positively; no need to make any changes there, other than emphasizing the importance of regular rest and refocusing our lives in a spiritual sense.
• “Honor your father and your mother is, likewise, already rendered in positive terms.
• “You shall not murder” becomes “You shall honor life as God’s priceless gift.”
• “You shall not commit adultery” becomes “You shall uphold and honor marriage.”
• “You shall not steal” becomes “Respect the property of others.”
• “Do not bear false witness” becomes “Uphold the truth.”
• “You shall not covet” becomes “Seek contentment with what you have.”
In other words, there is a “Thou shall” hiding behind every “Thou shalt not.” These commandments are not given in order to restrict or confine us, to become a ponderous stone slab weighing us down. They’re given, rather, so we may have some possibility of achieving God’s intention for us as human beings.
It’s like that story I told, at the outset, of the wise rabbi who saw in a humble game of checkers some valuable lessons on how to live life to its fullest. He was wise enough to keep from punishing his young students for their inattention to their studies. Rather, he taught them by example how studying God’s law may be expanded as a lifelong quest that includes all of life, even something so mundane as a game of checkers.
There is a positive purpose to the Ten Commandments, and indeed to every commandment found in the scriptures. That purpose is to mold and direct our lives toward holiness. If life is an ever-flowing river, then the law is like the riverbanks. While we could, unreflectively, wish on occasion that there were no riverbanks, no restrictions – that we could exist perpetually in some kind of libertarian la-la land without swiftly succumbing to the sin that is our basic nature – a moment of honest reflections tells us this can never be so. We need the guidance and structure the riverbanks provide. Otherwise, our lives become not a river, flowing purposefully onward, but a swamp. And who wants to live in a swamp?
Now, from the standpoint of Christianity, God’s law plays a rather different role than it does in Judaism. Jesus, himself, was accused by his rivals, the Pharisees, of seeking to throw out God’s law. His response was, “I did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it.”
The Apostle Paul, in many of his letters, is led to address the subject of the law, in light of the doctrine of justification by grace through faith that is at the heart of his teaching. Even in today’s New Testament lesson we see it: “For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.” [Romans 3:28] Paul, too, hastens to add that his goal is not to dispense with the law, nor to undermine it. A life of righteousness is still God’s intention for us; but it becomes not the prerequisite of salvation, but rather our grateful response to the saving work of Christ.
Or, as he writes in Galatians chapter 3:
“Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.” [Gal. 3:23-26]
The word “disciplinarian,” here, is paedagogos, or teacher – it’s where our word “pedagogy” comes from. In highborn families of the Greek and Roman world, a pedagogue was a slave who took care of overseeing the children, keeping them out of trouble and difficulty as well as teaching them a thing or two. Once the children grew a little older, they no longer needed a pedagogue, but could make their own way in the world.
So, too, with the law, Paul is saying. If we follow God’s commandments long enough and diligently enough, eventually they become a part of who we are. Then, it’s no longer a matter of being governed and controlled by the “Thou shalt nots.” It’s a matter of having taken the “Thou shalts” into the heart of our very being, and living positively from our deep desire to act as God intends. We obey, then, not because we have to, but because we want to.
That’s God’s deepest desire for us – that we live between the banks of the law, not so much confined as propelled forward to the glorious future God intends.
Let us pray:
Lord, we thank you for the precious gift of freedom you have given us.
You must trust us a great deal,
to have given us the gift of free will,
by which we may as easily spurn you
as turn to you in faith.
Give us the sense to recognize how obedience to your law
is not confining,
In the name of Jesus, our redeemer, we ask it. Amen.
Copyright © 2012 by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.