Listen to the audio of today’s Reflection:
The Ten Commandments
1And God spoke all these words:
2 “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.
3 “You shall have no other gods before me.
4 “You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. 5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.
7 “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.
8 “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping 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. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates. 11 For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
12 “Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land 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 give false testimony against your neighbor.
17 “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant or his maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”
It’s sometimes said that all the rest of the law of Moses is really an expansion on the Ten Commandments. So if you accept that thought, the best minds of the Hebrew tradition have spent 3,000 years commenting on them. So the chances that I’ll be able to add much wisdom to that tradition in a 7½ minute daily Reflection are pretty slim. But it seems like we should take advantage of the opportunity of the Commandments coming up in the lectionary to give some thought to what they mean to us as followers of Jesus.
So here goes:
Let’s start with this: Just as the rest of the law can be understood as representing an expansion on the Ten Commandments, it seems to me that the Commandments themselves can be understood as an expansion on the two “most important commandments” that Jesus named when a Hebrew theologian asked him about it. As you might remember, Jesus told the man, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” The Ten Commandments take those two “most important commandments” and use them as the basis for concrete principles for living them out in our life with God, and in our common life as believers.
It’s not uncommon to hear people say that the first four commandments are about our relationship with God, and the last six are about our relationships with other people. There’s an element of truth in that, but it seems to me a little misleading. It seems to me that in God’s mind, the two can’t really be separated. Our relationships with other people are meant to reflect our relationship with God. We can’t claim to really love God with ‘heart, soul and mind’ unless we also love our neighbor – because God surely loves that neighbor as much as he loves us.
It’s also worth thinking about the fact that our Reformed tradition has always said that obeying the Ten Commandments requires us to take an expanded view of what they mean. We don’t get to claim we’re technically obeying the Ten Commandments if we disobey their spirit. Jesus said having murderous anger toward someone breaks the commandment against murder, and actively lusting after someone other than your spouse breaks the commandment against adultery.
The Westminster Catechisms take this principle and apply it to all of the Ten Commandments. For instance, when it comes to the commandment against stealing, the Catechisms say it forbids false advertising and all kinds of other deceptive practices. It’s pretty interesting reading – I’m sure you can read the Westminster Catechisms online, and reading the parts that apply to the Ten Commandments will really make you think.
Another important thing that’s often overlooked about the Ten Commandments is that they were handed down centuries after God made the covenant with the people of Israel. We tend to think of them as conditions that God set if the people wanted his care and provision. The covenant God made with his people was not a contractual arrangement – it was a gift out of God’s grace. The Commandments came along centuries later.
Christians tend to think that the God portrayed in the Old Testament is an angry and vengeful God – always judging and smiting and punishing. But that’s largely because the historical parts of the Old Testament were written by Hebrew scribes centuries after the events they describe. Those historical books represent theological reflection on the history of their people. When you look closely, the grace of God is just as visible in the Old Testament as it is in the New Testament.
It seems to me that we also need to remind ourselves regularly that the Ten Commandments were intended by God to be a blessing to his people, not a hardship. The plain fact is that the Ten Commandments offer the single best program ever devised to allow humankind to live harmonious, healthy and prosperous lives. The Commandments have sometimes become a political football in the struggle between liberals and conservatives over the separation of church and state. But that’s a shame, because all of us – liberals and conservatives alike – would live better lives if we would take the commandments more seriously – not just as a club to bludgeon other people over their lives, but as a guide to living moral lives ourselves.
Let’s pray. Lord, we thank you for the Ten Commandments, and for the program of living by love for you and our neighbor they set forth. By your Holy Spirit, incline our hearts to live more and more in obedience to those commandments, to promote your glory and the flourishing of other people. Amen.
Have a great weekend, and worship God joyfully on Sunday!
(The listed readings for today are Psalms 49 and 96; Exodus 24:1-18; Colossians 2:8-23; and Matthew 4:12-17.)