s100o^97 Somerton Park 2/3/97 Lent 3
"I am the Lord your God" Exodus 20:2
In the matter of a personal nature sermon 100.85 was the first sermon I ever prepared on a computer - 12 years ago now - and to this day I can dial it up and reuse it with amendments. 12 years at perhaps 48 per year - 576 sermons!
I was interested to read recently a report in the Adelaide Advertiser about the percentage of English clergy who could not recite the 10 commandments without error. Similarly I have heard expressed the sentiment that if the whole of humanity lived according to the 10 commandments what a better state the world would be in. Well, I sorry if this offends anyone, but my considered opinion is that this is far from the truth. Let me explain.
The eighth commandment seems reasonably straight forward. "You shall not steal". Of course we should not steal. Yet this country was, from the European point of view, originally populated by the thieves of England - those who through sheer desperation stole to provide the daily necessities of life for themselves or their dependents. So I cannot say "Thou shalt not steal" unless it is tempered with some sort of social justice statement which proclaims the right of everyone to the bare necessities of life - including food to eat. There is no inherent right of those blessed with good fortune to quote the 8th commandment to withhold from others the basic necessities of life itself.
The Christian is of course bidden to go rather further than not stealing. We are bidden not to love wealth. We are told by Jesus how hard it will be "for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matt 19:23).
Well perhaps the seventh commandment is more straight forward: "You shall not commit adultery". I have no difficulty with the ideal of faithfulness. But I would have to say that Jesus had something to say about having your spouse as a possession. I am afraid much of the support for the seventh of the 10 commandments comes from a desire to condemn to eternal punishment anyone who might take something away from me.
Perhaps I am being a little provocative here. Perhaps I should consider something a little safer - the fifth - "Honour your father and mother". We are on no sure ground here either. We are told by Jesus: "Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:26.) Just slavishly following what our parents may demand is no way to live. None of us had parents who were perfect, simply replicating their failings in every generation is hardly edifying.
Is there not something which cannot be contradicted - perhaps we should try the fourth: "Remember the sabbath day to keep it holy". What could possibly be wrong with that? Indeed it is fine for those of us who live in the city. Having spent 9 years in country ministry, I have seen that it is not appropriate there at all. Certainly for the majority of the time it works all right. But come harvest time, nothing except Good Friday stands in the way of harvest. There, they abide by the parallel country ethic of going up to the Temple three times a year, as Jesus, as a country boy himself, did.
But it is also interesting, I have recently realised, that the list of those prohibited to work on the sabbath excluded someone quite significant. The words say: "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." Who does it miss out? It misses out your wife - who (of course) is still expected to present the man, his children and indeed probably the slaves, three meals a day.
It needs also to be pointed out that we do not as Christians observe the sabbath at all. The sabbath, the seventh day, is, as every good Jew and Seventh Day Adventist will point out, is the Saturday - beginning, as the people of the Jews observed - at 6pm on the night before - Friday, and ending at 6pm on Saturday night. We, as Christians, observe the day of resurrection - the first day of the week - the Sunday - the beginning of the new creation.
The observation about the wife missing out on the sabbath rest, leads me on to the tenth of the commandments: "You shall not covet your neighbour's house; you shall not covet your neighbour's wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour. (Exodus 20:17). This is, of course, in order of importance. Your neighbour's house is more important than your neighbour's wife. A wife is just one (and certainly not the most important) among a number of possessions one's neighbour might have - which one should not covet. While I have no difficulty with the concept of not coveting anything - I am (personally) embarrassed to recite dutifully, and even remotely regularly, words to the effect that my neighbour's house is worth coveting more that his wife! Human beings are not possessions.
It might be time to say which commandments I have no difficulty with. There seems no caveat to the ninth commandment: "You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour. (Exodus 20:16). When it comes to inter-personal human relations, bearing false witness seems to me largely indefensible.
I was nearly going to include the third - about misusing the name of the Lord. The real world, against which we assume the commandments to be formulated, have no conception of the love of God manifest in the life, death and resurrection of our Lord and Saviour. That they use the word "Jesus" as a swear word brings upon them condemnation, not of God, but of simple ignorance, for which the Church is more than likely to blame. People can certainly use colourful language and still have a heart of gold.
On top of the list, of course I have no qualms that we have no other gods but God, though in the Christian context that is understood to include God the Son and God the Holy Ghost. The necessity for qualification is noteworthy, particularly for the first of such important commandments. This should lead us to some sympathy for those who see God through the eyes of other faiths.
I am grateful that the words of the sixth commandment are not in this translation: "You shalt not kill" but "You shall not murder." (Exodus 20:13) It seems to me that allowing someone to die may be condemned by the broader injunction "Thou shalt not kill" when in fact they are not covered by the words: "You shall not murder." Murder seems to me to include an element of personal gain attached to it.
However I should say the deficiencies of living by the 10 commandments is not just demonstrated by the loopholes, someone of a liberal persuasion, might find. I find them unsatisfactory in one important way, in that they are too lenient.
The 10 commandments do not specify an age of consent. I can understand why. When the 10 commandments were formulated, people did not have much idea of the year, month or day of their birth. They were not governed by the time on a clock as we are. But I have a real problem with the fact that the 10 commandments make no reference to an age of consent. Paederphilia is, in some quarters, touted as a legitimate expression of sexuality. I would be more ready to accept this if I found evidence that young children expressed a reciprocal "adult-philia", for reciprocity is of the essence of all loving relationships.
A word about idols, the prohibition of which forms the first part of the second commandment. The idol is a man - made object which is used to manipulate the gods or other people to our own will. It is this definition which allows us to differentiate between works of art and idolatrous objects. Works of art are clearly not idolatrous, even if they portray humanity in all our nakedness. They are a celebration of the creation, in all its complexity, emotion and fragility. Lying behind art is a appreciation of the creator and a striving to find and express something of the truth of our existence.
However some expressions of Christianity, those which keep "God" to ourselves, in the end can be more idolatrous than engravings. Prayer can be misused as a form of manipulation to get our own way with God or to get God to manipulate others to our way of thinking. I see much more idolatry in churches than the beautiful decorations that adorn this and other churches.
But I want also to comment on the second half of the second commandment too. The words are: "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". In the Revised Standard Version it was actually "of those who hate me". I wonder which is more accurate? I haven't done Hebrew.
I always tell my Confirmation class that I've met lots of people who have forgotten God, who have complained to God, who have not loved God, and indeed many have good reasons for their attitudes. But I've never met anyone who hated God. Hate is a very strong word, and I can understand that the effect of someone who hated God would have its effect to the third and fourth generation.
But the graciousness of God is clearly expressed as the words continue "but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments".
I need also to say something about God being jealous. When we are jealous, we are put out because some likes someone else rather than us. God is jealous on our account, only insofar as he knows that everything else is concerned with how much they can extract from us. God is not magnified by the number of followers he has. Such jealousy is not part of God's nature. We are indeed told that "God is love" (1 John 4.8) and that "Love is not jealous" (1 Cor 13.4) so God is not jealous.
The only commandment without caveat I have found to be the ninth: "You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour" which, curiously, is the commandment said to be most frequently broken at the trial of Jesus.
The Church can make an idol even of the ten commandments as a tool to keep people away from God.
The ten commandments rightly focus mostly on our relationship with one another. They were given to humanity after God had brought the Israelites out of Egypt with signs and great wonders. Many people are still however in Egypt. Many people are still enslaved. Within our own hearts we are not free. God gave them the commandments after liberation, not before. People need to know the liberation of the cross and resurrection of Jesus, before the command to love even becomes appropriate. So too with the 10 commandments. We obey them because we know his love and his power to save. It is inappropriate to say to those who do not know of his love and power to save that these are the rules God has given us to live by.
Perhaps, liturgically, the commandments could be recited after receiving the sacrament of the Altar.
We come again to what I have most frequently observed when I preach. How do we as the Church focus on the good news of the liberation of God through Jesus Christ. Surely it is not proclaiming the 10 commandments or the two commandments, in Churches or Street Corners. It is in accepting the contributions that others make to God, that the gospel is proclaimed and some response to the commandments becomes even remotely possible.
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