When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they came together, and one of them, a teacher of the Law, tried to trap him with a question. “Teacher,” he asked, “which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
Jesus answered, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength. This is the greatest and most important commandment. The second most important commandment is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as you love yourself.’ The whole Law of Moses and the teachings of the prophets depend on these two commandments.” Matthew 22:34-40
Point by Point
- The Ten Commandments were not written to us
- God (through Moses) shouted the Big Ten at a bunch of stressed and thoroughly frightened Israelites
- Even though fear is a lousy motivator, it does get the attention of people whose spirits have been crushed
- Lightning, earthquake and shouting got the attention of Israel at the mountain, at least for a few hours
- We live much further along in God’s great redemptive story; God does not have to shout; we know love
- Jesus said even the Big Ten Law-Words need to be hung out on the two great love commandments
- So let’s hear the commandments positive, power-side out
- We’ll being doing that over the next few months, one Big Ten law-word at a time
How do we today read the ten law-words (or, as they are commonly called, the ten commandments)? Contextually, they come at a time in history when Israel had just been torn out of Egypt through the power of conquest by plague. I imagine the people of Israel, for their part, barely knew what had hit them. One day they were making bricks or what ever else they were forced to do, just like their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents had done. The next day they had to find their own straw to make bricks because of the meddlesome duo of Moses and Aaron who had upset Pharaoh and convinced him that “the Hebrews” had too much time on their hands. Then the plagues started and about eight months later, they, Israel, were forced out of Egypt, sent packing carrying a fare share of the wealth of Egypt – “Here! Take this stuff, silver and gold! Just leave, will ya, before Egypt is completely destroyed!”
And then they had made their way across the desert eating something they called “manna” (Hebrew, for “What is it!?”) and then they got to a mountain where this god who had stolen them from Egypt – conquered them, really – did not seem to know whether he wanted to keep them or destroy them. Moses went up on the mountain and a long time later he came down with these new rules…
The framing of the ten central laws of God’s covenant with Israel are almost all negative: don’t do this, don’t do that, etc. Well, that fits with their experience and oppressed condition, doesn’t it? The victim-mentality of broken people who have always lived in a crushed, subordinate environment is a pretty hard mentality to motivate. Forget love. Forget respect. Kindness? You’ve got to be kidding. Such broken people, about five to ten percent of any population in our society, see kindness as the behavior of suckers. Go out of your way to be nice to crushed people and they will find a way to work your system, to scam you. People who, because of their hardship, never developed – could not afford to develop! – empathy, see gentleness, patience, kindness and respect, as signs of weakness.
So, how do you get through to a people where not five or ten per cent are crushed spirits but where 95% of them are like that, people who are only motivated by the lash and the threat of the lash?
You thunder! You rumble! You roar at the top of your celestial, mountain-top voice!
“I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery!
“You shall have no other gods before me!
“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. 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, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments!
“You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name!
“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 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. 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!
“Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you!
“You shall not murder!
“You shall not commit adultery!
“You shall not steal!
“You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor!
“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.”
When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.” Exodus 20:2-20
They are only moved by fear, by the threat of violence; you have to reach them and so you do: Ah… Now you have their attention. They are shaking like leaves, but they are listening. So God got through to Israel in language and with an affect which they could understand. Good for right then, but not so helpful now, nearly 3500 years later.
Now here we are trying to make sense of a set of rules that were shouted at the original recipients! What to do. What to do… Maybe we should just ignore the law! Or not. On what basis do we, sinners saved by grace, ignore the old words? Pretty risky stuff. Sure, I have Holy Spirit-driven insight, but me, I am going to start by listening to Jesus. How did he re-hear the shouted old law? Jesus took all the old laws, looked at them through his Holy-Spirit-driven insight and revised them. “You have heard it was said of old… But I say to you…” Matthew 5:21-22, etc., etc. Jesus also said, on two other laws hang all the rest:
“Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” Deuteronomy 6:5 and, “…love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD.” Leviticus 19:18b.
Jesus said these two laws are the lynch-pins for all the rest. So what do these laws have that is not present in the Big Ten?
For starters, there is love. The ten were shouted at people who knew nothing about love as a core motive, as the very center of personal, communal and divine power. Love, the desire to serve another with only their best interests at heart; to do all one can for another in order to see that other succeed, that is love. Love is a part of what gets crushed out of one who knows only threats and violence as motivators. Love, from the point of view of broken people is pure stupidity. The flattened-out worldview of a mere survivor is one in which every decision must be filtered through the grid of “What’s in this for me this minute; how does this help me get through today, right now?” Only short-term, survival thinking is allowed. Every game is zero-sum and no decision can ever give any real ground. No decision can ever risk the possibility that there might not be a return on an investment. Love, the spending of my energy for the betterment of another, is completely out-of-bounds in such a framework. Only suckers would act out of something they foolishly called “love.”
Love as sex? Well, yes. There is an immediate return on the risk of getting naked. But love as friendship? Love as helping another with no thought of repayment? Love as dying for another? Some have wondered why Jesus did not die for our sins way back then, right after Moses brought the people out of bondage in Egypt? Because no one would have noticed and no one would have cared.
It took a long time for God to help a crushed people become more whole, less unclean in their view of themselves, others and the world. Love is a word which does not show up very often in the early books of the law. The laws of Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers mostly shout, “Just do it!” or “Just say no!” Then, forty years in the wilderness and a new generation later, Moses is finally ready to really start talking a bit more about love. Loving God, not entertaining a wicked thought in one’s heart about one’s neighbor. It took a long time to teach Israel about love, about the one risky investment we can make that may make life fully meaningful.
So, how do we read the Big Ten Words today? First, like God, we have to stop shouting. Ours is a world wherein the love of God has been already having its way with people for many centuries. Ours is a world where most of us know at least a bit about sacrifice, about giving without hope of return. Most of us will pay some attention to God, at least at some level. Then, we need to read the commandments, not as suggestions, as someone once quipped, but as ways in which we who have been loved are ourselves called to do risky love.
Over the next few months, I will post a blog now and then on one of the Ten Big Ones. Let’s discover together what these mostly negative rules can mean for us when we turn them positive, power-side out.
Lord, you are the creator and redeemer. You are the lover of all you have made and called to your side. Out of love, you thundered at Israel and brought her around so that she might be a blessing to all the nations. You patiently worked with judges, kings and prophets and when all else failed, you sent your son. Out of love, you reached out, you risked all through Christ Jesus and you have inexorably changed the world for the better ever since. Although we go through hard times and terrible dry spells, we know you are very close to us in all times. Moreover, we know that love is stronger than fear and that your grace is stronger than any curse. So, Lord, we call again for your blessing to be poured out in tangible ways, not so that we fear but so we are empowered to walk your walk with all we meet. May your kingdom come soon, Lord and may we get to help bring it! We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.