Faith— 03/11/2021

“All Those Words”

By Pastor Jerry Donovan

The extraordinary can become ordinary with the passage of time. The revolutionary can seem normal. Take trial by jury. When it was introduced in England, jury trial was a monumental development, but it was greatly resisted. Now we are so accustomed to the practice that we feel inconvenienced when we receive a jury notice.

That seems to be the case with the Ten Commandments as well. Ten Commandments tend to be taken for granted. Even pastors or rabbis who teach and preach about them can forget how revolutionary they once were. For most people they have become decorations in courtrooms rather than a sacred call to live by sacred values.

One core aspect of the Ten Commandments is frequently forgotten and overlooked. It is what makes them different from other ancient codes of law. It is what made the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, a revolutionary document destined to shape the entire world. While other religious systems focused on how to behave toward their God, the Ten Commandments centered on how we behave toward one another.

The question of how to be a “good” and “moral” person is one that humanity has been attempting to answer for millennia. Exodus 20:1-17, has long been viewed as a way to be moral: Follow these Ten Commandments and you are a “good” person. Or at least not a “bad” person. It’s comforting to believe in this sort of morality, all you have to do is follow these rules and you are moral, Holy, and good.

It’s a trap that our own Holiness tradition has fallen into, the choking vines of legalism. It’s the same spell that authoritarians can cast over entire populations. It’s the comfort of having someone tell you what to do and how to do it. The comfort of not having to engage in self-reflection or self-responsibility. To use the Ten Commandments in this manner is irresponsible and ignores the context and spirit of the story.

The Israelites receive the Ten Commandments upon their arrival at Mt. Sinai after escaping slavery in Egypt. Before this moment, they are a nation of enslaved people, but now they have escaped Pharaoh’s army, they have witnessed the miracles of God, they are moving toward the Promised Land. However, their collective memories are still dominated by their years of oppression. The injustice they have suffered is still their identity.

The Ten Commandments offers a new source of identity for Israel: not a list of rules to follow, but an invitation to forge a new identity and new relationships with one another and with God. These aren’t rules meant to control and subjugate, but rather social agreements about what sort of people they will be. 

The ethics of the Ten Commandments are not based upon following ten rules. They are based upon the kind of relationships that the Ten Commandments reflect, and the identity that the Israelites hope to symbolize. The people who love God (Exodus 20:1-4), and the people who love neighbor (Exodus 20:5-10). It’s not enough to follow the rules, one must be shaped in relationship. This is what Jesus concluded in Matthew 22, The Greatest Commandments encourage right relationship with God and with others.