October 5, 2014 Exodus 20: 1-4, 7-9, 12-20
Rev. Catherine Purves
I don’t think I have ever memorized the Ten Commandments. Maybe I have, but I can’t remember doing it. I certainly don’t recall having received a prize for accomplishing that feat as a child. And I’m not sure that, even now, I could recite all ten of them in the right order. That, of course, presumes that there is a right order. And the whole question of memorizing the Ten is complicated by the fact that the wording is different in the two lists of Commandments found in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5. The differences are minor and editorial, but, still, which one should we memorize, if memorizing is our goal?
You may have noticed, if you had your Bible open to follow along as Linda read from Exodus, that the 20th chapter doesn’t end with Commandment number 10. It goes on to speak about the Law concerning the Altar, and the next chapter elaborates on the Law concerning slaves, the Law concerning violence, Laws concerning property, and on it goes for several more chapters.
If you look up the list of Commandments in Deuteronomy 5, you will see that in the very next chapter we find another important statement or summary of the Law: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” Then we are directed to, “Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart.” To which we might want to respond, “Which words were those exactly?” Is it only ten, or are there more laws that we should be worried about? What, if anything, should we be memorizing?
You probably also noticed that we didn’t read straight through chapter 20 of Exodus. We skipped over four lengthy verses. Those four verses contain editorial comments on the basic laws. Apparently, from the very beginning, the Ten Commandments needed additional clarification and elaboration. Verses 5 and 6 explain what you are not to do with idols and what will happen to you if you do. Verse 10 spells out who is not to do any work on the sabbath, and verse 11 provides a justification for keeping the sabbath which is based on the creation story in Genesis. In Deuteronomy’s recording of the Ten, this Commandment is justified by the fact that God rescued them from slavery in Egypt. If we wanted to commit the Ten Commandments to memory, should we also memorize the verses we skipped, and which justification for the 4th Commandment should we try to remember?
Perhaps you think that I am just making excuses for my inability to memorize the Ten Commandments, but my point is more important than that. If we think of the Ten Commandments as a complete set, something we can memorize, and more or less all that we need to remember from the Old Testament (many people do think that!), then we are lowering the bar considerably and vastly over-simplifying the relationship that we are meant to have with this God who spoke the Ten Commandments and who communicated so much more to us. The first five books of the Old Testament (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) are called the “Torah” which means “teaching” but we often refer to them collectively as “The Law.” If you really want to start memorizing, perhaps you should begin with Genesis 1: 1 and just keep going. Then again – and this is the point I am trying to make – is memorizing lists and laws the best approach to understanding the nature of a relationship?
I’m reminded of a few encounters that Jesus had with people who were concerned about lists of laws and what they must do to have eternal life. These are recorded in the first three Gospels and each one is a little bit different. A basic fear lies behind all of these stories: the fear that salvation may depend upon knowing and living by the right set of laws. Sometimes Jesus invites the individual to recite the laws he has memorized. In other accounts, Jesus provides a summary or a partial list of the Laws. Sometimes that satisfies the eager inquirer, but one, a rich young ruler, claimed to have kept all of the commandments which he had memorized since he was a child. Jesus then replied to him, “There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor,…then come, follow me.” That encounter didn’t end well. The young man “was shocked and went away grieving…”
It is easier to memorize lists than it is to be in a relationship. We are all tempted to adopt a do-it-yourself religion in which sanctifying a list of laws or beliefs creates boundaries for the relationship we are meant to have with God. Once you decide on your list, memorize it, and live by it, you’re all set. You never even really need to encounter God after that. As long as you follow the Ten Laws, what you do with the rest of your time or money or power is up to you.
Jesus, of course, will have none of that. God’s claim on our lives is absolute. God’s relationship with us gathers up the whole of our lives, with no remainder. The reality of that relationship and the consequences of that relationship are broadly sketched out in the Ten Commandments, but they forever remain open-ended and expansive right up until that relationship is again spoken, this time in flesh and blood, in the man Jesus. From then on, our living in relationship with God is understood as being in Christ and it is practiced by following Christ.
This relationship of being and of following demands more of us than we can ever reduce to a list of Ten things to do or to refrain from doing. A genuine encounter and relationship with the Living God is a terrifying thing. God’s actual speaking of the Ten Commandments in the presence of all the people was an almost unique event. The Israelites had to consecrate themselves, and they were warned not to touch even the edge of Mt. Sinai or the glory of God might break out and consume them. The mountain was enshrouded in thick cloud, fire and smoke poured out from the summit, thunder and lightning and loud trumpet sounds created a terrible cacophony, and the earth shook violently. The people were absolutely terrified, and at the end of our reading they beg Moses not to allow God to speak directly to them again. One hearing of the Ten was enough. One sight of the concentrated power and glory of God would seal the deal and sear in their memories the fact that they were in a relationship with a holy and all-consuming God. The Laws they could memorize, but that vision of God they would never forget. Nor should we. That was the God they would have to relate to, from then on. And they would have to relate to God on God’s terms.
At the same time, that remarkable relationship that the unremarkable Hebrew people had with this untamable God was pure gift. Remember that they were already saved when they were given the Ten Commandments. The first words that God spoke to the people from the inferno of Mt. Sinai were these: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” This list of Ten which expanded to hundreds of laws was never meant to be the prerequisite for the relationship that they had with God. That relationship was already established by God, when God called Abraham, when God led Isaac and Jacob, when God settled his people in Egypt, and then when God freed them from slavery and guided them through the wilderness to Mt. Sinai. These Ten Commandments were never a way for them, or for us, to create a relationship with God; they were always and only the way that we could begin to understand and respond to that relationship which was God’s gift.
Memorization in itself is certainly not a bad thing. It is one way that we can inwardly digest and hold in our minds and hearts the word of God. But it is no substitute for a living and all-encompassing relationship with an omnipotent and eternal God. That is what changes everything. Remembering is important, but it is not the same as being in Christ and following Jesus. The Ten Commandments sketch out some of the broad contours of the relationship that God has established with us, but living in that relationship will require us know Jesus and then to follow him wherever he may lead us. Those Ten Laws can only ever be the beginning. No matter how carefully we memorize them or how consistently we obey them, they can never be the goal, they can never provide an adequate summary of our adventure in faith. For that, we need to talk about our relationship with Jesus Christ. When we think about the many ways in which we are called and enabled to live in terms of that relationship, there are never only Ten.