Sermon: When commandments bring freedom

Sermon for Williamstown Uniting Church
8 October 2017

Exodus 20:1-20
Psalm 19

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The Ten Commandments, known by Hebrew Scholars as the ‘Ten Words,’ don’t have a good reputation among some Christians. Way back in 2008, as part of the introduction of his ‘New Faith,’ the then-minister at St Michael’s Church, Francis Macnab, put up an enormous billboard over the Tullamarine freeway with the text: ‘The Ten Commandments: The most negative document ever written.’ As a publicity campaign it was brilliant; as a piece of biblical interpretation it was appalling. The Synod meeting that year asked St Michael’s to take the billboards down and apologise, which as you can imagine was an unusual step for the Uniting Church to take. (In response Dr Macnab said that he had been defamed.) One of the reasons that Dr Macnab gave for his argument was that:

There are three critical commandments which are disregarded … “Thou shalt not kill”. (In wars we have killed approximately 70 million men, women and children in the 20th Century to the present time.) “Thou shalt not bear false witness”. People do this without reflection. “Keep the Sabbath day holy”.

I would have thought that the fact that 70 million people were killed in the 20th century would be a reason for Jews, Christians and Muslims to shout ‘You shall not murder’ from the rooftops, but then I am not Dr Macnab.

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It’s not just Francis Macnab who sees the Ten Words as negative. A year or so ago the children here read through The Jesus Storybook Bible, which told the Bible story through the lens of Jesus. The chapter on the Ten Commandments was called ‘Ten Ways to be Perfect’. It showed Moses receiving the Ten Words in the middle of a rather terrifying thunderstorm. Moses tells the people that if they keep these rules God will always look after them, and the people promise that they will. But the book goes on to say that this is impossible; that God knew it would be impossible; and suggests that God only gave the Ten Commandments in order that the people would fail and turn to Jesus. That is definitely one Christian interpretation, but it’s not what any Jewish scholar or the majority of Christian scholars would say is the point. I quite like The Jesus Storybook Bible and its cheerful pictures, but not this chapter.

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Even Christians who do accept the Ten Words as part of our heritage struggle to see them as positive. C. S. Lewis, writing about today’s psalm, said: ‘“Thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not commit adultery” – I can understand that a man can, and must, respect there “statutes”, and try to obey them, and assent to them in his heart. But it is very hard to find how they could be, so to speak, delicious, how they exhilarate.’[1] And yet as far as we can tell the author of today’s psalm was being absolutely serious when they wrote: ‘More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb.’

As with any piece of scripture, it’s important to read the Ten Commandments in context. The people of Israel had just been saved from slavery in Egypt. They had been the victims of a powerful empire ruled over by a human ruler who claimed to be a god. They had been persecuted, to the point of attempted genocide. And from all this they had been saved by the God who had heard their groaning, remembered the covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, and taken notice of them. Now this liberating God had claimed them as his own people.

This is the context within in which the Ten Words were given. They were a gift given by the God who saved his people to enable them to continue to live as his people. They were a gift given to a people who had long lived under slavery, to enable them to live in freedom.

To begin with, the people are to have no gods other than the God who brought them out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. They are not to make for themselves any idols; nor are they to make wrongful use of God’s name. In other words, it’s God who is to be loved, served and trusted – not Pharaoh and the way of life he represented. Walter Bruggemann calls these first Words ‘nothing less than regime change’.[2]

The next commandment is to ‘remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy’. The people may work for six days, but on the seventh day everyone is to rest: not just the heads of households but their sons and daughters, male and female slaves, livestock, and alien residents. All work is to be stopped. Francis Macnab said that this was one of the three commandments that are disregarded today. But imagine if we listened to it! It tells us that there’s an alternative to allowing our lives to ‘be defined by production and consumption and the endless pursuit of private well-being’.[3]

The latter six commandments are the equivalent of Jesus’ ‘love your neighbour as yourself’, and again can be words of freedom rather than terrifying demands. Imagine if all of us honoured all older people as fathers and mothers, for example. There would almost definitely be fewer terrifying stories in the media about elder abuse in aged care.

The final three commandments are all about ensuring that a community can live together peacefully. They concern behaving honestly with a neighbour’s property, including that neighbour’s reputation. They recognise that coveting isn’t an innocent pastime, but something that leads to envy and greed, and so harms both our neighbours and ourselves. It’s not hard to imagine that people living in slavery, desperate to survive, would often have been willing to steal and betray each other, but these commandments remind the Israelites that that’s not the way for a free community to behave.

Dr Macnab was absolutely right about people often breaking these Commandments, but I’d argue that the problem isn’t with the Words but with those who ignore them. The majority of Australians support the offshore mandatory detention of asylum seekers, for example, because of years of some forms of media bearing false witness against refugees, telling us that they are economic migrants and potential terrorists. The Minister for Immigration recently said that the men going to America were ‘economic refugees,’ a category of refugee that simply doesn’t exist. Imagine how much better the world would be if we didn’t take it for granted that the media and politicians lie to us, and called them out every single time they bore false witness. And there are entire industries today whose sole purpose is to make us covet our neighbour’s possessions. Imagine if we recognised that listening to advertisers was a form of coveting and did our best to avoid ads.

All these Commandments are, finally, really about freedom. Because we’re in relationship with God, we’re free not to need any other gods. Because God loves us, we’re free to take rest, and not to resort to stealing, lying and covetousness in order to live. These Words, like all the Torah, are revelations of the nature of God, and of the freedom that our relationship with God brings. This is why today’s psalm praises the law as ‘more to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb’. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of my favourite twentieth-century theologians, wrote: ‘It is grace to know God’s commands. They release us from self-made plans and conflicts. They make our steps certain and our way joyful.’[4]

Far from being ‘the most negative document ever written’, far from being given to us simply so we can fail to obey them, if we take them seriously, these Ten Words can offer us the life in abundance that Jesus came to reveal. Of course there are times when we will break these Commandments. We’re human. But we can pick ourselves us, accept God’s loving forgiveness, and try again. And the world will be a better place. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] C. S. Lewis, Reflection on the Psalms, 1969, pp. 49-50.

[2] Walter Bruggemann, Journey to the Common Good

[3] Bruggemann, ibid

[4] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible, Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1974, pp. 31-2.

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