Ten Words to Live By

Exodus 20:1-17

1 And 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 image 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 male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. 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 male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”

 

A Sunday school teacher was discussing the Ten Commandments with her five and six year olds. After explaining the commandment to “honor thy father and thy mother,” she asked “Is there a commandment that teaches us how to treat our brothers and sisters?” Without missing a beat one little boy answered, “Thou shall not kill.”

            The Ten Commandments.  Has there ever been a set of theological and ethical teachings that has received more attention than the Ten Commandments?  For years we have heard debates about displaying the Ten Commandments on public properties such as court houses and schools. We’ve seen Hollywood take a stab at producing a version of this story with Charlton Heston acting out the part of Moses.  We even see references to these teachings in places that we wouldn’t normally expect.  Near my hometown there is a dairy processing plant known as Smith Dairy and for a period of time they would print a verse from the 10 Commandments on the side of their milk crates, those valuable plastic containers used to transport milk jugs.  Any guesses as to which of the 10 Commandments they would put on the crate?  “Thou shalt not steal.” Of course the one that I saw was no longer in the possession of Smith Dairy.

            As we continue our Lenten series on covenant making we turn today to the giving of the Law. The giving and receiving of the Law is the making of a covenant between God and the Israelites. You may begin to notice that we are moving in a trajectory toward something with these covenants. We started with the sinfulness of humanity with the Great Flood and Noah’s ark. We then moved to God establishing a chosen people through whom God would work for the redemption of the world; through Abraham and his descendants God would work to set things right. And in today’s passage we find the beginning of the teachings on how we are called to live as God’s people.

            The Ten Commandments are considered foundational theological and ethical teachings in many of the world’s religions and are often even seen as excellent ethical guidelines by people with no religious affiliation.  They stand the test of time and are just as applicable today as they were over 3,000 years ago when God carved these words into two stone tablets.

            A quick Bible quiz question for you all today before we get into our message. Who was the first person to break the Ten Commandments? Moses, he broke all of them in one single act. Anyways…

            Different groups throughout history have divided these ten commandments up differently. So if you were to ask a Jewish person what the first commandment is, he or she would quote to you verse 2 from Exodus 20, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” And you might say, “That’s not even a commandment.” Well, Jewish people don’t call them the Ten Commandments, but the Ten Words or the Ten Teachings. To make it come out as 10 Teachings the Jewish approach to numbering these commandments is slightly different than the way most Christians would number them.

            Does anyone want to guess how many times the Bible calls them the Ten Commandments? Zero. The Hebrew Bible calls them the Asereth ha-D’bharîm which literally means the “10 Words.” The Septuagint calls this the “Decalogue,” deca meaning 10, logue or logos meaning word. But most Christians call them the Ten Commandments because that’s what most of them are. They are commandments. They are imperative statements.

            Call them what you will, but I am going to call them foundational.  Let’s list these commandments as we have traditionally numbered them (since the time of Augustine in the 5th century):

  1. Have no other gods before Me (God).
  2. Make no graven images and if you do, don’t worship them.
  3. Don’t misuse God’s name (Yahweh).
  4. Keep the Sabbath.
  5. Honor your father and mother (long life!).
  6. Don’t kill (murder?).
  7. Don’t commit adultery.
  8. Don’t steal.
  9. Don’t lie about your neighbor.
  10. Don’t covet your neighbor’s house. Don’t covet your neighbor’s wife, servants, ox, donkey, or anything else.

 

Don’t you love it that your neighbor’s wife is lumped in there with his ox, donkey, and everything else? That says something about how women were viewed in those days, and I sure hope we don’t view them as property today.

            So we have these ten commandments, however these are but a fraction of the commandments that we find in the Old Testament. The number that is usually used as the number of commandments in the Hebrew Scriptures is 613.  There are 613 commandments in the Old Testament.  Now aren’t you glad that nobody made you memorize all 613 commandments when you were a kid in Sunday School? I had enough trouble with 10!

            I believe that we worship a God of order, not a god of chaos. Let’s look at what we commonly call the Creation Narrative from Genesis 1:1-2, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.”

            God creates the heavens and the Bible says that the earth was formless and empty.  The NRSV calls the earth a “formless void.”  Darkness and water cover the face of the earth.  It is chaos.  And God creates order of out chaos (I would love to have God intervene with my two-year-old a little more frequently). Our God is a God of order.

            So we have these 10 Commandments and we have a total of 613 commandments in the Old Testament.  I believe that the other 603 or so commandments are commentary on how to live out the Ten. The giving of the 10 Commandments is a way for God to order the “chaos” of the extended commentary (sorry if calling chaos is offensive).

            After Moses is given the 10 Commandments he goes down and back up the mountain and each time he is given more of the Torah, the Law, the 613 commandments. And if you were just to look at the headings in your Bible you would see things like “Offerings for the Tabernacle,” “The Ark of the Covenant,” “The Sabbath Law,” and “Justice for All.”  Most of the next 11 chapters seem to be God describing to Moses how the people are to live out these 10 Commandments. It is commentary on these commandments. 

Now most of us would probably agree that much of what I have just called commentary is no longer applicable to us today. We don’t make sacrifices like these chapters tell us to, I don’t wear an ephod; I don’t really even know what an ephod is. So why do we think the 10 Commandments still apply if the stuff about priests wearing ephods and sacrificing bulls doesn’t?

            In the New Testament we find a guy named Jesus. Jesus is met by a Rich Young Ruler in Matthew 19 who asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus tells him to keep the commandments. So the eager young man asks which ones.  In verse 18-19 we read, “Jesus replied, “‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honor your father and mother,’ and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’”

            That’s five out of the ten, plus one more for good measure. Jesus never refutes the 10 Commandments and he affirms half of them. I am pretty sure that he still felt that it was important to have no other Gods before the Lord and to not make idols.

            It might seem at times like Jesus is against keeping the Sabbath, and indeed the Pharisees accused him of not keeping the Sabbath. But Jesus isn’t against keeping the Sabbath. He is against the legalistic ways in which the Pharisees keep the Sabbath. But that’s an entire sermon for an entirely different day.

            But we come back to that last part, the “love your neighbor as yourself” part that Jesus gets from Leviticus 19:18.  We have heard that one before, haven’t we?  When Jesus was asked what the two most important laws are, he answered, “Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, and strength and the second is to love your neighbor as yourself.”

            It seems like Jesus is always being asked which of the 613 commandments in the Hebrew Bible were the most important. And we see Jesus, just like his Father, being a person of order; a God of order. Jesus simplifies things: Love God, love your neighbor. If you can’t remember 613 commandments, remember 10. If you can’t remember 10, remember two. If you can’t remember two, God bless you.

            Just as I think that the 613 commandments of the Old Testament are commentary on the Ten Commandments, I believe that the Ten Commandments are a commentary on these big two commandments to love God and your neighbor. And we can go right down the list and see how they fit into the category of either loving God or loving neighbor or both. And some people have even hypothesized that the two stone tablets that were given to Moses listing the 10 Commandments had on one tablet the ways to love God and the other contained how to love your neighbor.

            But I want to come back to the Jewish way of enumerating these Ten Commandments. Again, the Jewish community would begin with verse 2, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.”

            I think that we skip over this verse too quickly to get to the meat of this text. We want the laws. Like the people that approached Jesus asking him which laws were the most important, we just want the rules spelled out quickly for us so we can go about feeling good about ourselves again and justifying the way we live. We want to know what we must do to inherit eternal life, not that that’s a bad thing. But I think we miss the point entirely if we look at the 10 Commandments just as rules to live by. I think we need to look at the 10 Commandments as ways in which God provides freedom for us.

            I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. These commandments aren’t meant to bind us, they are meant to free us. The God who freed the Israelites from Egypt is now freeing them from idolatry. Don’t worship any other god, don’t make any other god, don’t even own a graven image that you might be tempted to worship. Get rid of that and you will be free. God is freeing them from working hard seven days a week, trying to succeed at all costs, even if it costs them, costs us our family and relationships. Freedom from killing, freedom from stealing, lying, freedom from coveting.

            In John 8, Jesus tells those who believe in him that if they follow him, then they will know the truth, and the truth will set them free. Because if the Son sets them free, they will be free indeed.

            This week I found a very effective diet and I managed to drop a few pounds. This diet is called “the flu.” And I know that I am not the only one here the tried this diet last week. We are so good at sharing in this congregation, just as we were really good at sharing it in my household.

            Paxton woke up a little early from his nap on Monday because he had thrown up in bed and the poor little guy couldn’t keep anything down that night, not even water. As we were tending to him at 2:00 am, I began to feel a little queasy myself. I knew what my short-term future held for me. It wasn’t long until I was revisiting my lunch.

            But here is the interesting thing. When I finished throwing up and had washed my mouth out, I felt better; a lot better. I don’t think that anybody likes to throw up. But in doing so I was getting the bad stuff out of my body. And for a period, I was free from the pain and discomfort that I had been experiencing.

            I know that it is a strange illustration, but I wonder if the teachings of the Bible aren’t kind of like that stomach bug that I had. They aren’t always pleasant. Sometimes they can be down-right painful. But they are meant to help us get the things that are poisoning us out of our bodies.

            Our God is a god who wants us to be free. Free from sin, free from temptation, and free from guilt. These things can poison us and God wants to free us from these poisons.

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About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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