Hear what the Lord says:
Rise, plead your case before the mountains,
and let the hills hear your voice.
Hear, you mountains, the case of the Lord,
and you enduring foundations of the earth,
for the Lord has a case against his people,
and he will contend with Israel.
“O my people, what have I done to you?
In what have I wearied you? Answer me!
For I brought you up from the land of Egypt
and redeemed you from the house of slavery,
and I sent before you Moses,
Aaron, and Miriam.
O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised,
what Balaam son of Beor answered him,
and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal,
that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.”
“With what shall I come before the Lord
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
He has told you, O mortal, what is good,
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice and to love kindness
and to walk humbly with your God?
Let us pray. Lord, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
In my exuberance to support our congregation’s beautiful ministries in Kenya, I auctioned off a sermon topic. It has always been my belief that sermons were never intended to be monologues. So, I was both thrilled and daunted when Randy Lee posed his 10,000 lb question.
He asks: “I wonder if you could address what caused a temporary crisis of faith for me maybe 15 years ago…I couldn’t understand why there seemed to be, in my humble opinion, at least four sins that were much worse than those covered by the 10 Commandments. Rape, slavery, child abuse, torture. Are these covered by lesser commandments? How many lesser commandments are there?” And then he goes on to wonder, as perhaps you have in your life as well, if it is possible to rack and stack these commandments in some kind of order or moral priority. Under those questions I heard a tender faith claim: Any serious moral framework must condemn the kinds of abuses that scar individuals and whole groups of people that deeply, so if it is not overtly set in stone, do people need to catch up or does God?
So, without further ado, I will launch our 73-week sermon series as a response. In all seriousness, I want to thank you, Randy, and BPC for attempting to live an honest, curious, life-sized faith that takes the Bible seriously.
I have prayed and researched, and posed these questions to pastors and rabbis, alike. The most common response I received was, “Thanks for reminding why I will never auction off a sermon topic.” So, with no thanks to them, here are the 5 Caveats for the 10 Commandments.
Number 1. When it comes to Biblical commandments, there are more than ten.
There are actually 613 commandments, or mitzvot, in the Torah. There are commandments that deal with the health of our relationship to God and one another. Such as not to use the name of God in vain or lie. There are commandments dealing with the specifics of the community health. Such as not eating weasels or bats. They were ahead of their time in many cases, credited with preventing all kinds of illnesses, especially for people traveling in the wilderness long before refrigeration.
Naturally, human beings want to rank them, and when the disciples asked Jesus to do so, we know his answer: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself.” That is Jesus’ ranking system.
Number 2. Commandments are more about boundaries than behaviors.
Some commandments are positive, the shalts, thou shalt honor thy father and mother and remember the Sabbath and keep it holy and others are negative, the shalt nots, thou salt not steal, murder, covet, commit adultery.
An evergreen fascination of people of faith is to derive meaning from the numbers themselves. And if that is you, behold that in the 613 laws there are 365 negative commandments, one for every day of the year, and there are 248 positive commandments, the same as the number of bones and organs in the body. I find that interesting.
But more than heavy stones and burdensome behaviors to carry around or even a symbolic code, these laws are a sacred set of boundaries. An Old Testament scholar named Terrence Freitheim said, “While the address [of the 10 Commandments] is individual, the concern is not some private welfare. The focus is on protecting the health of the community, to which end the individual plays such an important role…. They open up life rather than close it down; that is, they focus on the outer limits of conduct rather than specific behaviors.”
Number 3. They are a breath-taking announcement of freedom.
The Hebrew title for the Big Ten is Aseret HaDibrot which actually means the ten statements or sayings. If you want to sound fancy, the English word for this is Decalogue, which means the 10 words. They are saying something about what this world can and should be. They don’t declare: “here are 10 rules – stay in line!” They start with “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”
Another scholar named Patrick Miller says the 10 Commandments are an ethic of neighborliness. They are not just about condemning theft but truly considering the worth and well-being of a neighbor.
That brings us to the crux of Randy’s question and our own. When we read hear about the crushing atrocities that face our world, genocide and chattel slavery that cement trauma into the DNA of whole groups of people for generations, when we hear about brutalities like rape and child abuse and torture that cement pain into the psyche of a person even if their body happens to survive, when we hear about mass shootings like those in Half Moon Bay and Monterey Park Califonia, when we hear about terrorism and the destruction of Ukraine and the brutal beating of Tyre Nichols, we can understand that kind of pain as a violation of several commandments at once. These assaults are an idolatry of power combined with the theft of dignity and body. They often take the name of God in vain or violate the most intimate trust we have with each other. They are an assault on the center of the Venn diagram of the ten commandments, the anti-shalom. And when that happens, we are no longer free… we are enslaved by flashbacks and nightmares, stuck in a cycle of blame and shame and often revenge and repetition.
Which brings us to number 4. The commandments evolve with us.
Moses was just a few steps off Mount Sinai, water bottle still in hand I imagine, when he saw his congregation already worshipping a new shiny golden god. From that moment, Moses smashed the tables to the ground and the interpretation of the commandments began. From then on, the laws were carried around literally and spiritually by the people of Israel into new places and time periods and understandings. The interpretations became an entire Rabbinic tradition and something called the Talmud. The Talmud is an ancient library of legal opinions written by Rabbis throughout the centuries all about these commandments. In many ways, the rest of the Bible is a lived interpretation of the commandments.
They are meant to be written upon our hearts to shape us as a people. Like the beatitudes that Jesus shared from another mount. Take for example today’s text, such a beloved one. One in which the people of God are still asking for God to boil it down, rack and stack the rules so that they can bear the anxiety of living. And God sums it up like this: He has shown you, O mortal, what is good and what the Lord requires of you. But to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God.
Number 5. God’s ultimate gavel is the cross.
In his life, Jesus had more religious lawyers following him than an episode of Law and Order. Dung dung. They would set up rhetorical traps so that it would seem like he was either throwing out the commandments completely or breaking them constantly. That is a human tendency as well. To draw the lines as starkly as we can. To define people as worthy or unworthy, insider or outsider, guilty or innocent, good or evil, friend or foe, sinner or saint. Jesus showed what justice truly looked like. There is no you vs me, or us vs them, or – perhaps the toughest judge there is – me vs myself, but a new covenant, for the forgiveness of sins, a gavel of grace upon all of us, a pronouncement yet again a divine dance of justice and mercy and ultimately freedom.
Frederick Buechner said it this way:
Justice is the pitch of the roof and the structure of the walls. Mercy is the patter of rain on the roof and the life sheltered by the walls. Justice is the grammar of things. Mercy is the poetry of things.
The cross says something like the same thing on a scale so cosmic and full of mystery that it is hard to grasp. As it represents what one way or another human beings are always doing to each other, the death of that innocent man convicts us as a race, and we deserve the grim world that over the centuries we have made for ourselves. As it represents what one way or another we are always doing not so much to God above us somewhere as to God within us and among us everywhere, we deserve the very godlessness we have brought down on our own heads. That is the justice of things.
But the cross also represents the fact that goodness is present even in grimness and God even in godlessness. That is why it has become the symbol not of our darkest hopelessness, but of our brightest hope. That is the mercy of things. Granted who we are, perhaps we could have seen it no other way.
There are than 10. They are boundaries more than behaviors. They are a pronouncement of freedom and they evolve with us and the gavel is the cross.