The Ten Commandments don’t have near the profile they did even fifty years ago, when they were as likely to be on display in public school classrooms and courthouses as on the Sunday School wall. If you’ve ever taken a walk up behind the pavilion at Kildonan Park, you might have been surprised to stumble upon a large monument engraved with the commandments. There’s another imposing one in Assiniboine Park in the Formal Gardens, which was presented to the city in 1965 by the Fraternal Order of Eagles and the Ladies Auxiliary. It is hard to imagine anyone—much less the Fraternal Order of Eagles—offering to make a gift of a Ten Commandments monument today; not so hard to imagine the head-scratching consternation with which such an offer would be met at City Hall.
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Early in my ordained ministry while I was working as an associate at St Paul’s Church in Fort Garry, I got a call from a youngish couple in the neighborhood, asking about baptism for their baby. I arranged to meet them at their house, and over a cup of coffee we had the typical get-to-know-you chat. He’d grown up in Fort Garry, and had been raised at St Paul’s. When time came to begin a family, he and his wife had moved back there, quite close to where his mother still lived. He was a lawyer, and ran a little neighborhood practice, within walking distance of their home. They seemed solid folks, of the sort who would root themselves in that area, and just be really good neighbours. I liked them instantly.
We began to talk about baptism, and what it means for parents to make the choice to have a child baptized, and I could see a slightly cautious look come across his face. “We’re not really church-goers ourselves,” he told me, adding that this was really important to his mother, whose wishes they really wanted to honour. Yes, they’d certainly come to church with her on Christmas and Easter, but most importantly they lived according to what he called the moral teachings of the Bible, particularly the Ten Commandments. He clearly hoped that would be sufficient.
The Old Testament scholar Terence Fretheim notes that once you’ve taken seriously the introductory words to these commandments—“I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery”—it should become clear that they are are “not a law code… meant to float free of their narrative context.” “This opening word of God,” Fretheim continues “keeps the commandments personally oriented: I am the Lord your God. Obedience to the commandments is relationally conceived… The Ten Commandments… are a gracious word of God and they begin with a word of good news about what God has done on behalf of “you” as a member of the community of faith.”
Put another way, these were never offered as timeless, free-floating, moral rules suitable for engraving on city park monuments… or for demonstrating your eligibility for having your baby baptised. No, as presented here in Exodus 20 and then again in a slightly modified form in Deuteronomy 5, they say some critical things about the shape of life as it is lived in covenant relationship with God. You are God’s people, and this is what it is going to look like.
Besides, it takes a while for the list of commandments to get close to what might be taken for a moral code. The first three—you shall have no other gods before me; you shall not make for yourself an idol; you shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God—aren’t about ethics or morality at all; they’re about theology. The mandate to have “no other gods before me” was uttered into a world replete with other gods; Egyptian gods, Canaanite gods, local gods and kitchen gods. People had a veritable smorgasbord of religious options before them, but here this God of the Covenant says, “no more.” From there it flows to the commandment against idols or graven images. All of those other religious options come with statues and figures and carvings, but you’re not to be about those other gods anymore. Further, you cannot make a carving or a sculpture of this God, for this God will not be turned into a commodity. You can’t carry this God into battle with you as a sign of power, nor can you pour oil over it or offer food to it or spatter sacrificial blood on it the way you can with those other gods, because this God isn’t an “it”.
You’re also not to make “wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God,” as our translation puts it, rendered by the Authorized Version as taking “the name of the Lord thy God in vain.” I think modern people have often assumed this means little more than not using words like God or Christ as swear words, but it is much more than that. You’re not to invoke this name as if it were a source of power for you; you’re not to throw it like a weapon, cheapen it, or use it as some kind of leverage.
The next one is pure gift: “Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy.” In Egypt the economy had driven all. No rest from labour, no break from the demands of the marketplace… but now you, along with “your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, [even] the alien resident in your towns” will know a different rhythm. And you’ll know it because the Lord God “rested the seventh day,” and wants you to have that same privilege; that same gift.
Now things begin to turn toward the territory that the young lawyer had in mind when he talked to me about the commandments and morals. “Honor your father and your mother,” which is doesn’t sound like a tough thing to do if your parents have acted honourably. Not so easy for people whose parents were abusive or neglectful, of course, but then again the force of this may be closer to something Cornel West said in a recent lecture given at New York’s Trinity Church, Wall Street. “Self-made men, self-made women; what a lie, what a lie. As if we gave birth to ourselves.” In other words, honour the fact that you are not self-made or self-created. Honour the reality that while God is the source of all life, your parents had a very particular role to play in your coming to be. Don’t forget that.
Now come a series of commandments that Walter Brueggemann calls “rules neighborliness.” You shall not murder, commit adultery, steal, or bear false witness against your neighbor. These commandments are the boundaries or terms for basic, basic neighborliness, which gets further ramped up in the final commandment in the series: “You shall not covet… anything that belongs to your neighbor.” Really? I have to confess, several times over the past month I have coveted the spot that Mike Boyce was inhabiting during his sabbatical at the Collegeville Institute at St John’s Abbey. I’d had a January holiday, but there I was in February in full covet-mode. And it was me who’d introduced Mike to Collegeville in the first place! But no, you shall not covet that which is your neighbour’s, because covetous envy can destroy relationships, friendships, neighborhoods. So rather than coveting what Mike was experiencing, I had to shift to a posture of delighting on his behalf for that opportunity to be in a place that I know and love.
Incidentally, the list of your neighbour’s belongings that you’re not to covet actually includes your neighbour’s wife. By the time these commandments are recapitulated in Deuteronomy 5, “wife” is no longer listed as property. The commandment “Neither shall you covet your neighbour’s wife” is there, but she stands on her own, not as part of the man’s personal inventory of “stuff.”
Do you hear how this is really about not commodifying God and not reducing neighbour to anything less than neighbour? How so much of this is allowing God to be God and neighbour to be neighbour, with both approached from a posture of foundational respect and love? And can you see how a community that embraced these things as its starting point might just become a whole and holy community?
Now think for just minute about the scene from tonight’s Gospel reading, in which Jesus chases the moneychangers and merchants from the temple. In John’s telling, what is it that Jesus says? “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” You are making money off of peoples’ need to buy these animals to offer in sacrifice, and you are making money off of their need to exchange their Roman coins for Jewish shekels in order to make their tithe. You’re making money off of your neighbours, in other words, and you’re doing it in the very place in which they are to see and to know that God is God. You have turned their religious practice to your own gain, and in doing so have commodified both God and neighbour. Get out!
These ancient covenant commandments still place claims on us; not as rigid rules or as guidelines for a generally moral life. They call us to let God be God—not commodified, not domesticated, not wielded for my own gain—and to see neighbour as neighbour. That person across the aisle or sitting five rows behind you—the one you’ve not even met or talked to—that person is your neighbour. Receive them like that; respect them like that; love them like that; and then begin to discover what it is to be a part of a whole and holy community.
In the 11th chapter of Deuteronomy the people are instructed to “put these words of mine in your heart and soul,” (Deut 11:18) which makes a whole lot more sense than putting them on a stone monument in a city park. On the stone monument they gather moss, but spiritually written on your soul they can still do their deep and transformative work. May it be so.