Narrative Lectionary Reflection
September 30, 2018
In the waning days of the Roman Empire, a monk named Benedict wrote a document that would direct how his fellow monks would live. Used by Benedictine monks for 15 centuries, the Rule of St. Benedict laidout how monks were to live in a communal environment. The rule provides order as well as helping the monks foster a sense of the relational nature of humans.
The Israelites crossed the sea and are now “safe” on the other side. Pharaoh and his army are gone. No more Egyptians to worry about. But now they were out in the wilderness where they faced many unexpected challenges. In Egypt, they followed Egyptian laws, but they weren’t in Egypt anymore. They were now out in the wilderness. Rules were needed to help everyone get along outside the structure of Egyptian society and law. Common expectations and community norms were needed. The needed a rule, like the the Rule of St. Benedict.
As the people journey together, Moses presents them with a new Law from God. The core of God’s Law for the Israelites is the Ten Commandments. Received by Moses and delivered to God’s people, these laws became important not only among the Israelites but also to many cultures and governments around the world. In our own nation today, the Ten Commandments are widely accepted as social and spiritual norms.
It is important to note that the Ten Commandments were given to the Jews (actually the male Jewish head of households) and were not intended for universal use. That said, we they can help us understand how we should live as Christians, what God expects from us and how following rules can be seen as an act of grace.
Engaging the Text
The Lord called to him from the mountain, “This is what you should say to Jacob’s household and declare to the Israelites: 4 You saw what I did to the Egyptians, and how I lifted you up on eagles’ wings and brought you to me. 5 So now, if you faithfully obey me and stay true to my covenant, you will be my most precious possession out of all the peoples, since the whole earth belongs to me.
It’s easy to see the Ten Commandments as rules to be on God’s good side. But that’s not really what they are about. In fact that aren’t really about us at all. Theologian Rolf Jacobson notes that there are two things the Ten Commandments don’t do; they aren’t a pathway to salvation and they aren’t there to make you a better you. Jacobson says the following:
The first is that God does not give the law as a means to salvation. To use the law to earn salvation, to win your soul’s way into heaven, is like trying to build a faster-than-the-speed-of-light spaceship or a time-travel machine out of plywood. It’s not possible. And neither is it possible to earn salvation through the law. God does not give the law as a way to establish relationship with the people. God establishes the relationship and then gives the law.
That leads to the second point about the law. It isn’t about “us,”per se. God does not give you and me the law in order to perfect us or even to make us a better “you”or a better “me.”The law is not about us — it is about our neighbors. God gives you the law, not so that you can get more spiritual or have your best life now, but so that your neighbor can have her best life now.1
The Ten Commandments are for our neighbor and for God. How do we relate to our neighbors? How do we relate to God? We aren’t blessed when we do good, but when we do good to the other and the other does good to us.
The first four commandments deal with our relationship to God. The next four deal with our relationship to others and the last two deals with the desires of the heart.
We will look briefly at each commandment starting with the first one.
You shall have no other God’s before me. Don’t put anything or anyone ahead of God. We are to pledge sole alligence to God. When we fail to love God, our neighbor is affected. As Jacobson notes, “When we center our lives around things other than God — whether it be money, fame, power, pleasure, beauty, even religion, or anything else — our neighbors will pay.”
Don’t make yourself an idol. God is supposed to come first over everything. It is easy to think we could love God and something else, but God commands that there are to be no idols.
Don’t use the name of God wrongly.We call upon God to forgive us when we sin, to offer praise, to seek healing. God’s name is powerful so we should use it with care.
Take the Sabbath off. The Sabbath is a day to worship God, but more importantly, it is usually about rest and fairness. This commandment gives the poor a day of rest. It is also a reminder that in Egypt, the Israelites had to work without a day off. Now they are free from having to work all the time, so take the time to rest.
Relating to Others.The next four focus on who we take care of our neighbors. That includes are parents. The first one of these commandments, honoring your parents is about loving the other, our neighbors. In a more modern tone, we are to care for the elderly in our midst. We are also not to take the life of another (again, to murder is to not care for the other), not stealing and not having sex with a person’s spouse. Again, we don’t do these things to get on God’s good side, but we do it for the benefit of the neighbor.
State of the Heart. The last two commandments deal with the heart. Don’t bear false witness against a neighbor and don’t covet anything of the neighbor.
An aside about how Jews might see the Ten Commandments. Protestant Christians tend to look at law and gospel or grace differently than Jews. Starting with Martin Luther, we emphasize grace and sometimes see the law as something that is archaic and has nothing to do with our faith.
Jews, however, see this differently. They see the law as a response to God’s goodness. Theologian Geoff McElroy explains:
At first glance the Decalogue seems to be a list of regulations, and that’s what we assume they are, a list of do nots. But maybe they are more like a framework through which life, specifically life with God, is interpreted.
Jewish tradition about the Decalogue gets this in a way that post-Pauline Christianity has seemed to have lost. For many Christians, the Ten Words are “law” vis-à-vis the gospel or good news of God revealed in Jesus and even though we’ll still think following them is a good thing, they are seen as something distinct from the concept of God’s grace, as things that we as humans have failed to live up to and thus we need saving.
But in Jewish tradition, the Ten Words are a response to grace. The Jews traditionally order their commandments differently; what the Jews regard as the first commandment or word, many Christians just dismiss as a prologue or introduction to the commandments. But in Jewish tradition, the first commandment is not to have “no other gods before me,” but is instead: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exo 20:2).
In other words, the first word of life with God is to, “Remember what God has done for you!” 2
As Christians, especially Protestants, it’s easy to look at the Ten Commandments as rules to follow or rules that weigh us down, take away our fun. Because we are all children of the Reformation, Protestants tend to believe in grace over law. That we are saved by grace is the central message that reformers like Luther and Calvin.
However, these passages were originally written by and for Jews, so we need to see how Jews responded to these Commandments. Jews tend to see the Ten Commandments or Ten Words as a response to grace. The Ten Commandments are a response to grace. The law is the vehicle for grace.
It’s important to realize that the first commandment in the Jewish tradition is not You should haven’t other gods before God. Instead, the first commandment is “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”
It’s these sentences that the rest of the commandment flows from. The rules that follow are not God keeping tabs as it is a response to what God has done. If God has shown mercy to you, then you are to not make idols to other Gods. If God has led you out of Egypt, then you are to care for the elderly. If God has loosed the bonds of slavery, then you are to not steal or covet anything your neighbor has.
Theologian Thomas Long has likened following the Ten Commandments to a dance. He writes:
The Decalogue begins with the good news of what the liberating God has done and then describes the shape of the freedom that results. If we want to symbolize the presence of the Ten Commandments among us, we would do well to hold a dance. The good news of the God who set people free is the music; the commandments are the dance steps of those who hear it playing. The commandments are not weights, but wings that enable our hearts to catch the wind of God’s Spirit and to soar.3
Like the Ten Commandments, Communion reminds us of God’s wondrous acts of freedom through Jesus Christ. How will we respond? If God has freed us, then we should take the bread and wine with great joy, learning to follow God’s ways in joyous response. We will fail at times, but God forgives us and we are reminded again of God’s love.
- Rolf Jacobson, Working Preacher, June 15, 2014.
- Geoff McElroy, Desert Scribblings, 2008 (http://gmcelroy.typepad.com/desertscribblings/)
- Thomas G. Long, Christian Century, March 7, 2006, p.17.
Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century.