But if that is the effect, and undoubtedly some who put them up may have meant it to be so, then we’ve rather missed the point of the Ten Commandments. I want to suggest this morning that, rather than being a text which should strike terror into our hearts, it is one which should bring joy.
How so? If you have been here over the last two Sundays, since Lent began, you will have detected and wee theme running through our services. That theme is the idea of covenant, that particular form of divine promise which God has established from time to time with his people. On the first Sunday of Lent, we thought about God’s covenant with Noah – symbolised by the rainbow – never again to destroy the earth. Then last week, we thought about one of God’s covenants with Abraham and Sarah, by which God promised to make them the parents of a great nation. Today, we continue with the theme of covenant.
We are familiar, I am sure, with how the covenant outlined in the Ten Commandments came to be made. The Children of Israel, the nation promised by God to Abraham, had suffered for hundreds of years in slavery in Egypt. Led by Moses, under the guidance of God, they have escaped. God has made that possible. God has freed them and, in his love, fed them with manna, bread from heaven. Life in the wilderness is not easy, to be sure, but overwhelmingly the context for the giving of these Commandments, these divine words, is God’s love and bountiful provision for his people and his deep desire for their wellbeing. In bringing them out of slavery in Egypt, God has reaffirmed his covenantal promise to be with them. What is given to Moses up at Mount Sinai is a guide to how to live in covenantal relationship. And remember, always, that covenantal relationship is two way. It is binding on God as well as on his people.
Perhaps "binding" is the wrong word. It has too many negative overtones. I want to argue that's the Ten Commandments, rather than being laws which restrict, are in fact teachings which liberate.
When, in Mark’s Gospel, a scribe asks Jesus which is the most important commandment, he doesn't get a straight answer. He gets two answers. Jesus tells him, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength; and love your neighbour as yourself.” Jesus replied in this way because there are two distinct strands to the Ten Commandments. Five of them relate to how we should live before God and five of them relate to how we should live with one another, with God’s people, our neighbours, near and far. They are, first and foremost, a declaration that to be bound in covenant with God is to be set free to live as God's people. This is not about restrictions on personal liberty, but about protecting community and opening a way to encourage life, both individually and communally, to flourish.
While five of the Commandments are focused on our relationship with God and five are focused on our life together as God's people, it would be unhelpful to create too rigid a distinction. The fact is, they are all interrelated. Jesus’ refusal to pick one principal commandment demonstrates that. We cannot love God properly unless we love one another, and neither can we love one another properly unless we acknowledge that our love is rooted in and derived from God. Faithful worship of God leads to proper love of neighbour. Proper praise of God shapes our social responsibility.
For example, if we have no gods before God, and if we guard against idolising other things, then we will keep in their proper place all the other things, like money, power and sex, which press their claims on our lives and appropriate our devotion. If we keep the spirit of these commandments, we will see these things as gifts and responsibilities given by God. And knowing and treating them as such means that we will not use them to exploit other people. Not taking the Lord’s Name in vain is about speaking well of God, about an attitude of praise and thanksgiving. Keeping the Sabbath is to help us remember that all creation is a gift and we have a responsibility to be wise stewards of it. It is not an arbitrary instruction not to work one day a week, but an encouragement to value what God has given us by not being relentless in our pursuit of our own goals and agendas. The fifth commandment, about honouring our parents, goes well beyond being obedient, or not cheeky, or kind to our mothers and fathers. This is a reminder that we are not self made; that, to a great extent, what we achieve, we do so because of the help and support of others and that, ultimately, we depend on God.
The next five Commandments are more to do with how we live together. Given to a newly liberated people who were having to work out entirely anew the norms that would order their communal life, they are equally applicable now. “You shall not murder” suggests that others are loved, as we are, by God, and made, as we are, in God’s image. It also reflects back on the covenant with Noah, in which God promised never again to destroy in anger. What binds us binds God too. The Commandments about adultery, stealing and truth telling are all about cultivating trust and faithfulness. They are about building up community and not doing things which tear at the fabric of society; for such things damage everyone, and the advantage individuals may hope to gain by an act of faithlessness or of wrongful acquisition or by telling a lie, will ultimately come to nothing.
There is a temptation to see some Commandments as major and some as minor. We find murder abhorrent but we all envy what other people have, from time to time. Arguably, the whole advertising industry is premised on our willingness to covet. But the fact is, humanity is fragile and our loving is fragile and our community is fragile. It doesn't take much to damage it and to compromise our faithfulness to God. The inclusion of something we perhaps see as relatively minor reminds us how easy it is for us to stray, how easily our human ways of thinking can lead us in the wrong path.
Sometimes Lent, with its sombreness and introspection, can feel like an imposition. But it shouldn’t. It should feel like an opportunity to deepen our holiness and our relationship with God. Similarly, the Ten Commandments can seem very forbidding, but ask yourself this – would you want to live in a world in which murder and stealing and falsehood was rife, a world in which community did not exist and in which there was no rest, no love, no kindness, generosity, no selflessness? Would you want to live in a world from which God was totally detached? Would you want such a world? No you wouldn't, and neither does God. His Commandments are a gift which free us from such a dystopia.