Exodus 20:1-20 World Communion Sunday
Elizabeth M. Deibert 5 October 2014
There are over six hundred commandments in the Hebrew Scriptures, what we Christians call the Old Testament. But the ten we are reading today are undoubtedly the most significant ones. This is not the only version of the Ten Commandments. There is a similar list in Deuteronomy 5 and in Exodus 34. The first four commandments are said to be about loving God, and the last six about loving our neighbor as we love ourselves.
After all, when asked which he considered the greatest commandment, Jesus quoted the Shema from Deuteronomy, saying, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your mind, and with all your soul, and with all your strength. And then he added that the second is similar, “to love you neighbor as you love yourself.” These two summarize all the law and the prophets. I do not see how anyone of any true faith could argue with Jesus’ summary of the law. Of course, living according to it is different that agreeing with it.
There are over 4,000 public displays of the Ten Commandments, including in the Supreme Court itself and in the Library of Congress. Sometimes the Supreme Court has allowed the public display of the Ten Commandments, while other decisions have barred them. Richard and I lived in Alabama when Judge Roy Moore made quite a name for himself by insisting on the public display of the commandments. A 2004 Barna poll indicated that 79% of Americans oppose the idea of removing displays of the Ten Commandments from government buildings, even though another survey indicated that fewer than 10% of Americans can identify more than four of the commandments. A lot of zeal, but a lot of ignorance. I expect the zeal about displaying them has diminished in the last decade.
On World Communion Sunday, my view is that we need to recover not a zeal for outward displays which will alter nothing, but for inward commitment to these principles for peace, such that others are drawn to our faith by our witness to Christ’s peace.
The Ten Commandments are not just a binding, confining set of rules. They are liberating set of principles for peace – peace for me, you, others, and the whole world. These ethics grow out of the freedom of salvation. The Hebrew people were rescued, saved and now they have this opportunity to live in ways that are fruitful. Same with us. We have been saved, liberated, given freedom in Christ. If we break commandments, we will always be forgiven, but there are serious consequences that are damaging to relationships. Those consequences are usually not temporary but lasting. Hear now the Principles of Peace, the Law of Liberty, the Ten Commandments.
Then God spoke all these words: 2 I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 3 you shall have no other gods before me. 4 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. 5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, 6 but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. 7 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. 8 Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 10 But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work-- you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 11 For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it. 12 Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you. 13 You shall not murder. 14 You shall not commit adultery. 15 You shall not steal. 16 You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. 17 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. 18 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, 19 and said to Moses, "You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die." 20 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.”
Remember that wonderful final line, which I will paraphrase: Do not be afraid, for God is just trying to protect you and keep you out of trouble. Okay, remembering that the first four are about loving…..God and the last six are about loving………neighbor, let us walk through them one at a time.
"You shall have no other gods before me" (Ex. 20:3; Deut. 5:7).
No loyalty comes before my loyalty to God. I should worship and serve only God, expect all good from God alone, and love, fear and honor God with all my heart.
Matt. 4:10 "Jesus said to his tempter, 'Away with you, Satan! for it is written, 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'"
Matt. 6:24 "No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth."
Matt. 10:37 "Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me."
We don’t often think of family members as gods, but if we put family ahead of God, then family life has become our god. And that according to Jesus is idolatry, which leads us to commandment number 2.
"You shall not make for yourself an idol" (Ex. 20:4; Deut. 5:8).
First, when I treat anything other than God as though it were God, I practice idolatry. Second, when I assume that my own interests are more important than anything else, I make them into idols, and in effect make an idol of myself.
That takes us back to last week’s scripture from Philippians "Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others."
The third commandment is often disobeyed unintentionally
"You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God" (Ex. 20:7; Deut. 5:11).
I should use God's name with reverence and awe. God's name is taken in vain when used to support wrong. It is insulted when used carelessly, as in a curse or a pious cliché.
Not just is God holy but the very name of God is holy. It is not to be tossed around. The other day Rebecca was babysitting, and the child came to swim in our pool. She kept shouting, “Oh my god. Oh my god.” It is an expletive so common that it has its own acronym OMG on all the social media.
But we are called to bless God’s name, to ascribe to God the glory of God’s name.
We are challenged to let no evil come out of our mouths but only that which is useful for building up.
To use the name of God flippantly or to call ourselves by Christ’s name – Christian - without serious attention to the power and meaning of the name is to break the third commandment. I challenge you to cut OMG out of your vocabulary and to live into the name Christian with greater intentionality.
"Remember the Sabbath Day, and keep it holy" (Ex. 20:8; Deut. 5:12).
God requires a special day to be set apart so that worship can be at the center of my life. It is right to honor God with thanks and praise, and to hear and receive God's Word, so that I may have it in my heart, and on my lips, and put it into practice in my life.
But does it have to be Sunday? Well, remember that for Jews it is sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, and for many Christians it is sundown Saturday to sundown Sunday. The day of the week does not matter as much as the stopping to worship and rest. For the early Christians, worship was on the day of Resurrection, the third day after Good Friday, not the day known as the Sabbath by Jews.
The point is that we need to stop all our striving to remember that God is in charge of the world and not we ourselves. The second point is that employers should respect those who work for them and give them time to worship, rest, and enjoy their families and friends.
Now on to the last six commandments. The last six are about loving who?
"Honor your father and your mother" (Ex. 20:12; Deut. 5:16).
Though I owe reverence to God alone, I owe genuine respect to my parents, both my mother and father. God wills me to listen to them, be thankful for the benefits I receive from them, and be considerate of their needs, especially in old age.
In the Biblical times, there was no Medicare or Social security, so if children did not care for their parents, their parents simply died, for lack of means.
That was the last positively stated commandment. Now the last half will be “thou shalt not” commandments. And from here on, we have to remember the Sermon on the Mount, because every time we hear a commandment and think we are off the hook Jesus says, “you have heard it said, but I say to you…”
So when we hear "You shall not murder" (Ex. 20:13; Deut. 5:17) we cannot sit back and say, “I’d never do that!”
For God forbids anything that harms my neighbor unfairly. Murder or injury can be done not only by direct violence but also by an angry word or a clever plan, and not only by an individual but also by unjust social institutions. I should honor every human being, including my enemy, as a person made in God's image.
1 John 3:15 say "All who hate a brother or sister are murderers, and you know that murderers do not have eternal life abiding in them."
Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, You have heard it said, “You shall not murder.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment.
"You shall not commit adultery" (Ex. 20:14; Deut. 5:18).
God requires faithfulness, as God is faithful. Since love is God's great gift, God expects me not to corrupt it, or confuse it with momentary desire or the selfish fulfillment of my own pleasures. God forbids all sexual unfaithfulness, whether in married or in single life.
Jesus says, You have heard it said, “You shall not commit adultery,” but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
"You shall not steal" (Ex. 20:15; Deut. 5:19).
God forbids all theft and robbery – that’s easy. But it gets a little more complicated when we start talking schemes, tricks or systems that unjustly take what belongs to someone else. God requires me not to be driven by greed, not to misuse or waste the gifts I have been given, and not to distrust the promise that God will supply my needs.
The prophet Jeremiahs says in 22:13 "Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness, and his upper rooms by injustice; who makes his neighbors work for nothing, and does not give them their wages."
Prov. 18.9 "One who is slack in work is close kin to a vandal."
1 John 3:17 "How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?"
"You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor" (Ex. 20:16; Deut. 5:20).
God forbids me to damage the honor or reputation of my neighbor. I should not say false things against anyone for the sake of money, favor or friendship, for the sake of revenge, or for any other reason. God requires me to speak the truth, to speak well of my neighbor when I can, and to view the faults of my neighbor with tolerance when I cannot.
James 4:11 "Do not speak evil against one another, brothers and sisters. Whoever speaks evil against another or judges another, speaks evil against the law and judges the law; but if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge."
1 Pet. 4:8 "Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins."
And let’s take this one a step further. In forbidding false witness against my neighbor, God forbids me to be prejudiced against people who belong to any vulnerable, different or disfavored social group. Jews, women, homosexuals, racial and ethnic minorities, and national enemies are among those who have suffered terribly from being subjected to the slurs of social prejudice. Negative stereotyping is a form of falsehood that invites actions of humiliation, abuse, and violence as forbidden by the commandment against murder.
Last but not at all least "You shall not covet what is your neighbor's" (Ex. 20:17; Deut. 5:21).
Now in the days in which this commandment was written, women and servants were the property of the male head of household. That’s why it says you cannot covet your neighbor’s wife or servant.
My whole heart should belong to God alone, not to money or the things of this world. "Coveting" means desiring something wrongfully. I should not resent the good fortune or success of my neighbor or allow envy to corrupt my heart. We slip into coveting without shame, but it is a poisonous attitude.
Heb. 13:5 says "Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, 'I will never leave you or forsake you.'"
Gal. 5:26 "Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another."
The first four teach me how to relate rightly to God and the last six commandments teach me how to live rightly with my neighbor.
Can we obey these commandments perfectly?
No. We are forgiven sinners. We should not adjust the law to our failures, nor reduce our failures before God. Yet there is more grace in God than sin in us. While we should not cease to pray to God for mercy, we can be confident that God is forgiving and that we will be set free from all my sins. By grace we can confess sins, repent of them, and grow in love and knowledge day by day.
There’s a reason the commandments begin with our relationship with God -- our relationship with God affects our relationships with others. If we do not wholeheartedly trust God, it is difficult to endure personal relationship problems because we see no way through. We do not have the spiritual strength to endure it. If we begin to idolize other people or are guided by our own personal passions more than our love for God, we will have trouble keeping commandments 5-10. If we are not in close relationship with God, praying and taking Sabbath time to build our spiritual muscles, then we will have trouble truly loving our neighbor, whether that’s spouse, child, parent, colleague, friend, or stranger.
But if we can delight in God’s great love and in the gifts God has given us, particularly the people God places in our paths, if we can continually build a spirit of trust in God that allows space for shalom (peace, well-being), then we will be the peacemakers that the world so desperately needs.
Note: Much of the language and many of the scripture references in this sermon are borrowed from The Study Catechism, PCUSA 1998.