Scripture Passage: Exodus 20: 1-17 (Lent 3B)
Then God spoke all these words: 2I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 3you shall have no other gods before me. 4You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, 6but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. 7You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name. 8Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 10But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 11For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it. 12Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. 13You shall not murder. 14You shall not commit adultery. 15You shall not steal. 16You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. 17You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.
This is hard. The people are journeying through the wilderness. Food is in short supply and nerves are raw. They have quarreled and tested God but until now, they have had no real identity, no real purpose. This is the place where they are finally aware of the intention that God has for them as a people. This is the place where their lives and their journey become meaningful. This is the shape of who they are. And God gives them this covenant.
Now, despite the way we often read this somewhat fanciful story, I’m pretty sure that the Ten Commandments did not just drop out of the sky. It is much more likely that these specific laws were selected from among the gathered moral and social laws of generation upon generation. In essence, they grew out of a people’s understanding about God and their own relationship with God. The people are first reminded that God has already saved them before, bringing them out of slavery, bringing them into relationship with God. But you can’t help noticing that these commandments are formative of who one is before God and how one lives in response to God. The first four commandments related to one’s relationship with God and the remaining six have to do with the relationship between human beings. It is really very simple: You shall love the Lord God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. (with all that you are, with every essence of your being) And…you shall love your neighbor as yourself.
But we often try to make these laws more judicial, as if they are a hard and fast set of rules that God laid down, perhaps metaphorically slapping the people on their hands for misbehaving, like small unruly children. But these are not laws to obey in the “following the rules” sense. They are the shape of who we are, the shape of God’s people. They depict not what we should (or shouldn’t do) but who we are as people of God. It is about how we relate to God, how we relate to each other, and how we sustain ourselves on our faith journey.
The wilderness provided a gift of how to wander in the wilderness, of how to be. Think of them not as boundaries but as declarations of freedom, freedom not just from the slavery endured before but from every time that we allow ourselves to be enslaved by anything that makes us too comfortable and too settled and too sure of ourselves to wander with God and become who God intends that we should be. I don’t think we’re called to remember the words of the ten commandments as much we are to remember who and whose we are, to remember the very essence that they hold.
This Season of Lent is not really about following rules either. It is not meant to burden us or make us quit enjoying life or any of that. It, too, is about freedom, about finally experiencing the freedom that God gives us from slavery, from our plans, from the expectations of the world. Think of Lent as a type of Sabbath season, that frees us to “regroup”, to look again at who we are and who we should be. God is not expecting us to follow rules; God is asking us to dance, to delight in Creation, to delight in the world that was created for us. And the way we do that? We love God. We love ourselves. We love our neighbor as ourselves. And we learn the meaning of rest and reflection and glorious Sabbath. That’s all. That’s the way we will know God. Consider these commandments not as rules but as a glorious gift from God in the wilderness. But, notice, we had to get away, we had to wander a bit, all the while shedding ourselves of the trappings that we have created in our life, of those things that enslave us, to really understand what we have been given. We have not been given rules; we have been given Life.
Certainty is missing the point entirely. (Ann Lamott)
Grace and Peace,