Sunday 7 March 2021 – Third Sunday in Lent
Readings: Exodus 20:1-17, John 2:13-22
Although you can’t see them from here I am sure that most of you know that behind the High Altar, carved into stone, we have the Ten Commandments.
There used to be a large red curtain hanging behind the Altar. When I took the opportunity to peek behind the curtain I was amazed at the theological and architectural treasures which were hidden there. A bit like the curtain of the Temple being torn in two, which symbolised the ending of the division between God and humanity, I was convinced that the barrier between us and those words had to come down. Fortunately, the PCC agreed and down it came.
But I wonder whether in our heart of hearts, some of us are thinking:
“The Ten Commandments – aren’t they a bit, well, [whisper it], old fashioned. A bit Old Testament, a bit shall we say, pre-Christian or, even worse, a bit 17th century. Surely, Jesus did away with all that, and summed it up so that we don’t have to think about it?”
Well, yes and no. Jesus, of course, did provide a summary of the commandments, which I shall come to in a moment, but he also made it clear that he had not come to abolish that which came before him and not even simply to fulfil it but, also to enhance it.
The Ten Commandments, the Decalogue, the Ten Words are as much a part of our Scripture in the 21st century as they were to those who put them in this church, as they were to Jesus and as they were to the Hebrews in the wilderness at the foot of Mount Sinai.
It is easy to think as a list of commandments as restrictive and that the sort of God who wants his people to live by such a list to be rather controlling. I want to suggest something a little different this morning. That the God who had literally just rescued his people from slavery in Egypt did not want them to become slaves once again but that he wanted to liberate them into a new relationship with him and with one another.
The Hebrews had been slaves in Egypt for generations. Joseph, of the many coloured coat, had been sold into slavery by his brothers but ended up becoming hugely successful in Pharaoh’s court and was later joined by his brothers and their families. Although Joseph had been honoured in Egypt after he died new Pharaohs came and went, the number of Hebrews kept increasing and the Egyptians enslaved the people and even attempted genocide on them. Sadly, anti-Semitism goes back a long way.
Moses led those oppressed people, who knew little of God and nothing of how to live as free people, out of Egypt on a trek to the promised land.
When they came to the foot of Mount Sinai, at the start of Chapter 19 of Exodus, they had only been out of Egypt for 3 months. Before giving Moses the commandments God told him the purpose of this new covenant:
“…out of all the nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Ex 19:5,6)
When the Hebrews looked at one another what did they see? Hot and dusty former slaves who had just escaped death and were now sitting at the foot of a mountain in the middle of nowhere. But what did God see when he looked at this people? His treasured possession, something loved beyond compare and beyond price, a priestly people in relationship with their true God, a holy people in relationship with one another.
And at the start of chapter 20, before the ten commandments are set out, God again puts them into the context of the freedom he has given his people:
“I am the Lord you God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” (Ex 20:2)
Then we have the commandments themselves, which divide into two groups: four concerning our relationship with God and six concerning relations among people:
“You shall have no other gods before me.”
Egypt was full of the worship of many gods, Isis, Osiris, Anubis and others. The promised land ahead of them was full of the worship of the Baals. Our world is full of many ‘gods’ seeking our worship. But, number one, front and centre, God directs our attention and worship to him and him alone. God is the magnetic north for our compass of worship, and if our compass is set properly then we know the way to follow.
“You shall not make or worship idols” [I paraphrase a little]
This flows naturally from the first commandment and reminded the Hebrews, and should remind us, that the only thing worthy of worship is the creator of all things. We know that the Hebrews were very quick to break this commandment, making themselves a golden calf to worship, and we can tut at their foolishness, but how many idols do we make for ourselves and which stand between us and our worship of God?
“You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God.”
Names are powerful things. We are commanded to pray in the name of Jesus. In some societies to know someone’s name is to be in relationship with them, or to have power over them. If we take God’s name lightly or even use his name as a swear word then we are taking God lightly or even blaspheming him. I wouldn’t use the name of my loved ones as a swear word. If we truly love God and are in relationship with him then how can we also bring his name into disrepute?
“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.”
We know that Jesus later sought to free the Sabbath from an overly-legalistic interpretation and said that the ‘Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath’ but this was never meant to abolish the commandment or the principle of Sabbath-rest. A people who had been enslaved would not have known much rest. God freed them from slavery and commanded them to rest. That is liberation in the purest sense. How good are we at keeping a Sabbath? I know too many priests who claim to be too busy to take a proper rest day. My response is always that (a) it is an actual commandment and (b) who are we to pretend that we are busier than God? God commands us to take rest seriously – why would we want to give that up and seek to enslave ourselves again?
And then we have the commandments about our relationships with one another:
“Honour your father and mother.”
In a society which we may think of as patriarchal it is interesting that both parents are mentioned equally here. To honour our parents, as well as to honour God, helps keep us within a network of relationships in which we acknowledge that we are not the creators of all things – first came God, and then came our parents, and only then came us. None of us invented the universe or was capable of creating ourselves. Give thanks and honour to those who brought us into being.
“You shall not murder”
This is one of the commandments that Jesus took further than the law of Moses. It is easy, most of the time, not to murder someone. Most of the time. But Jesus said that even to call someone a ‘fool’ in our heart is as bad as killing them (Matt 5:22). Wow. This is the way of holiness. We must not only not murder people but try to excise anger against them. Perhaps to love them. We are getting there.
“You shall not commit adultery.”
Again, it is easy most of the time not to commit adultery. Most of the time. I am joking! But Jesus amplified this by saying that to look at someone with lust is the same of committing adultery. Our relationship with God and with other people doesn’t consist only of right actions but also right thoughts.
“You shall not steal.”
If murder can include calling someone a fool and if adultery can include looking at another with lust then I am going to go out on a limb and suggest that the command not to steal can include more than not robbing a bank at gunpoint. How might we have stolen from others? In our use of the world’s resources, in our economic treatment of those less fortunate than ourselves? One to ponder.
“You shall not give false testimony against your neighbour”
To lie about someone in court could cost them their lives or their freedom but also to gossip about someone and to play even a small part in spreading falsehoods about someone could cost them their reputation or their friendships. Lying about others does not come from a place of love and so it has no place in the economy of God.
“You shall not covet anything that belongs to your neighbour” [Again I paraphrase]
To lust after your neighbour’s wife, on Jesus’ interpretation would also be adultery and to desire your neighbour’s material belongings would be theft, on the deeper spiritual understanding. In addition, to desire what others have means to be ungrateful for what God has given you and it elevates material things into idols which divert us from the worship of God. In a world driven by advertising whose sole purpose is to make us covet or lust after the things we don’t have this may seem like the most minor of commandments, but it covers a variety of sins, including the ones to which we may be most susceptible.
So, I would suggest that the ten commandments do not belong to a long-forgotten past which has nothing to say to us or our discipleship. On the contrary, to know them and to truly live by them would be to set us free indeed.
But the bar is set high and, in places, Jesus seems to set the bar higher by making them a matter of the heart as well as a matter of our actions.
We know, I am sure, that Jesus summarised the ten commandments into two, perhaps corresponding with the two tablets or the two groups – that we are to love God with all our being and to love our neighbours as ourselves.
The commandments, the ten and the two, are utterly grounded in love – we love God by worshipping him and not giving our worship to anything which is not him and we love our neighbours by treating them always as we would like them to treat us.
But let’s not confuse love with fuzzy feelings which cost us nothing. In today’s Gospel reading we saw Jesus whipping out the money changers from the Temple because of his burning love for God, and we know that that action fed into the chain of events which led to the crucifixion. We should not let the word ‘Christian’ become a synonym for nice because sometimes radical love means going beyond mild niceness. We also know from the parable of the Good Samaritan that our neighbours are not simply the people who live next door to us – we are commanded to love those who might be most unlike us, who might be opposed to us in numerous ways, and our love for them might extend to costly giving to ensure that they are treated in the way in which we would wish to be treated.
True love is costly.
We know that love is costly because God loved the world so much that he sent his Son to us and we know that love took him to the cross and beyond.
Because of that costly love and the cross of Jesus we know that we can live by the commandments – not through our own efforts and our own holiness. Jesus was the only human to fully live out the commandments and by joining ourselves to him, who is also fully God, and by asking him to dwell in us and us in him, we have the grace to live fully in love towards God and towards one another.
And when we fail in that, as we do every day because of our many imperfections, we pray for the grace and humility to say sorry, pick ourselves up and try again.
Here’s a challenge. For the rest of today love God with all your heart and love your neighbour as yourself. Give it your best shot. And try again tomorrow.
In the name of Christ,