Thursday, October 09, 2008

The Ten Commandments, do we ever read it in context?

Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20

Then God spoke all these words: I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 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.

You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.

Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work.

Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.

You shall not murder.

You shall not commit adultery.

You shall not steal.

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance, and said to Moses, "You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die." Moses said to the people, "Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin."



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I was so thankful that the ten commandments came up in the lectionary this week in the Revised Common Lectionary. The ten commandments have become the object of some discussion, debate, and even controversy of late. Some people have advocated placing the ten commandments on a public building in each county in our country, other people have responded that this interferes with our notion of the separation of church and state. I rarely see the ten commandments written or printed in public places, and wonder about this state of affairs. I also wonder whether our Faith, and our Faithful lives would be enhanced if we saw these commandments posted, or not. It gives me some pause. When I was preparing to be ordained a transitional deacon, on the way to becoming a priest, in our church, I was at a retreat, and the retreat leader asked us to reflect upon the ten commandments as we prepared for the Rite of Reconciliation (sometimes known as "confession"). It was a rich afternoon that I spent a half an hour or so reading, thinking, reflecting, and writing about my own mis-steps and the ways that I have fallen short of these commandments. I tend to think that showing people how to reflect upon the ten commandments in light of their lives could yield some interesting and fruitful reflections, and even conversations.

What I also wonder, sometimes, is whether we read these admonitions in the context in which they are written in the Bible. In Exodus 20, we see these commandments, as well as in Deuteronomy. What I find most interesting in this moment, in my life, and in the life of our country and our world - with financial crisis, debate about leadership, the election horse-race coming to a close, what I find most interesting are the words that surround these 10 admonitions. Take a look at what comes before the "10" and what comes after:

"Then God spoke all these words: I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery"

and

"When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance, and said to Moses, "You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die." Moses said to the people, "Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin." "

God spoke all these words, and reminded the people that he is our God! He is the liberator, the rescuer, the savior, who has already done such great things for them, and for us! It is in this context that the 10 Commandments are given. This is a god who has rescued them, and us, this is a God who loved them, and loves us! God delights in us, God is with us, and God is always present with us, abiding with us, and among us. This is the beginning of the 10...

...then, after the commandments, the people are terrified, and they are afraid, trembling, and standing at a distance. Isn't this where many of us find ourselvs, afraid, fearful, anxious, standing at a distance from what is holy - not feeling worthy, and not REALLY believing that things will work out? The people don't want to hear what God has to say, they are worried that they have misbehaved, and that God will punish them. But Moses reminds them, "Do not be afraid" (how often does God, the prophets, the leaders, Jesus, and the epistles say this?) Do not be afraid!!! Here Moses reminds them that God has come only to test them, and has come only to get them to remember not to sin. If sin is action that moves us away from God's embrace, God here is coming to us, is chasing us down, and has come to his people, reminding them that He has rescued them, and that he wants them to "fear" him - to have awe for him, and that they don't need to be afraid, but can celebrate God's presence.

God has rescued us, has liberated us...this is the prelude to the 10 Commandments....
God wants us to be near to him, wants us to sin no more, and will come to us when we think we are lost...when we are afraid he reassures us and will care for us...this is the epilogue to the ten commandments.

Read the ten commandments, reflect on them, but also read them in context!

Have a blessed day!

~ Rev. Peter M. Carey

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