Preacher: Rev. David Exley Scripture: Ezekiel 18:1-4;25-32
The Ten Commandments passage from Exodus is one of the most familiar texts in the Hebrew Bible, but it’s also one of the most misunderstood and misinterpreted passages in the entire Bible.
As many of us know, the Bible is filled with laws and commandments (particularly in the early books of the Old Testament). But, for some reason, these commandments (found in both the Book of Exodus and the Book of Deuteronomy) have been elevated above all others.
There’s also a certain irony with the way that the Ten Commandments have been treated (and elevated) by certain people of faith.
Case in point… Progressive people of faith had a good laugh a few years back, when Late Night host, Stephen Colbert, interviewed a Georgia Representative (Lynn Westmoreland) and brought up the topic of the commandments. Westmoreland had just co-sponsored a bill requiring display of the Ten Commandments in both the House and Senate chambers.
Colbert (a devout Catholic who knew what he was doing) asked what should have been a softball question. “What are the Ten Commandments?” he asked. Westmoreland was able to come up with three.^1
The problem is not just that most people of faith cannot name all Ten Commandments, the larger issue is that we take them out of context. We’ve accepted what I would describe as narrow-minded interpretations of each individual Godly “utterance” and the text as a whole.
So, the question is, how might we reclaim this text so that it has relevance and meaning for today? How do we move on from the assumptions that our world makes when it comes to this passage of scripture?
Let’s begin by looking at the larger context of the Book of Exodus.
One biblical commentator (Vanessa Lovelace from Lancaster Seminary) suggests that, “The book of Exodus is about belonging.” The Ten Commandments section of the text represents “the beginning of a new community and a new people.”
These commandments represent an effort to establish “rules to live by” not only as a way to honour YHWH, but also to honour and respect one another.
In response to these ancient laws, I once heard a prominent atheist make the pronouncement that anyone today (those living in these modern times) could easily come up with a better list of laws than the Ten Commandments.
One of the criticisms that was made had to do with the first commandment—“Do not worship any gods except me.”
On the surface this is a law that appears to paint the picture of a petty and self-centred god. However, when we look deeper we can see just how powerful this commandment is and how transformative it can be not just for those living in the Ancient Near East, but also for us today.
If we believe that God is a god of love… a god of justice… a god of mercy and forgiveness… a god committed to equality and the dignity of all people and all creation, then the first commandment is not one that is simply about YHWH wanting more attention than Baal (or whatever other gods might “compete” with the God of Israel). Setting aside all other gods means that we must align ourselves with the values of the one God we worship. And so, the first commandment is not just about preventing people from making “graven images”; worshiping golden calves and the like. The first commandment is inviting the community to place love before self interest, mercy before personal vengeance, justice before individual gain.
This is what it means to live not just in isolation from others (on an individual level) but in community with others who desire to uphold those same values, hopes, and dreams.
For a parallel modern-day example of what it means to abide by this commandment, let’s turn to a story from just a few days ago.
In the flood of world news that emerged this week you may have missed this noteworthy story from south of the border…
On Wednesday night, two US Major League soccer teams, The San Diego Loyal and Phoenix Rising, faced one another in an important league game that resulted in the team that was leading 3-1 forfeiting the game just before halftime.
One week prior to Wednesday night’s game, one of the San Diego players, Elijah Martin, was called a racial slur at around the 71st minute of the game.
As a result, the two teams playing on Wednesday night had agreed to stop the game at the 71st minute as a sign of solidarity in support of racial equality and Black Lives Matter. The plan was to hold up a sign that read, “I will speak. I will act.”
Sadly, the game never made it that far.
One week after Martin was on the receiving end of an act of hatred and bigotry, another player from San Diego—midfielder Collin Martin (an openly gay man)—experienced the same thing as he was allegedly called a homophobic slur by one of the Phoenix players.
San Diego coach and former United States National Soccer Team star, Landon Donovan, was informed of the incident immediately after it happened. He went to the Phoenix coach to talk with him in hopes that they would decide on their own to sit the player for the rest of the game. When they instead opted to ignore the incident, Donovan (with the full support of his team), decided to forfeit the match—a match they were leading by a score of 3-1.
“If we’re going to wear armbands, and we’re going to wear rainbow-colors during June and BLM armbands and kneel before the games, that’s great. But when the real moment comes and we don’t act, then we’re all complicit,” Donovan said Thursday.
I can’t think of a better example of what it means to demonstrate a commitment to “community”—those things that are larger than the score of a single soccer game or any one individual’s stat sheet.
Coach Donovan did the honourable thing by saying (essentially), “I you want to belong to this community—this soccer club—these are the values that we must place above all others… even winning.”
This is precisely what the ancient Israelites were doing when they listened for God’s voice speaking to them through creation.
“What will define you as my people?” God says. Will you be able to set aside your personal needs (your individual needs) for the sake of something larger than yourself? Will you be able to resist the temptation to serve other “gods” that lure you away from the things that I value?
If God is love… grace… peace… mercy… compassion… forgiveness - that means that we must make that our top priority. The gods of self interest… the gods of money… the gods of judgement… all those gods must be rejected in order that we might commit ourselves to something greater than just ourselves and our individual needs.
Through this covenant that God makes with the people we learn that God is a god of relationship. That means that those who choose to follow and enter into community with others must move away from mere self interest to a commitment to the whole (to one another). This is clarified in the words and work of Jesus as he made sure ALL were fed… that ALL had access to God (not just the Temple elite)… that ALL had access to the gift of creation.
With that said, the First Commandment is broken not primarily when we build golden calves. The commandment is broken when treaties with Indigenous peoples are ignored. It is broken when we go into the voting both and think only of stock portfolio. It is broken when we deny individuals their humanity.
There is a cost to following God—a cost to saying “Yes” to participating in a faith community. The cost is that we each must make sacrifices as we commit to something larger than ourselves. We cannot serve other gods AND belong to God’s community of grace and love. We cannot belong to a forgiving community if we don’t forgive. We cannot belong to a peaceful community if we have anger and hate in our hearts. We cannot belong to a loving community if we aren’t willing to love one another.
The good news for us is that God doesn’t seek anything that doesn’t benefit us—the whole of us, that is. The good news is that God’s heart is much like the heart of Landon Donovan—a heart that doesn’t just talk a good game when it comes to grace, justice, peace, and love. God is ALL IN on working with each one of us as we seek to create something beautiful together.
This isn’t without challenges, God’s kin-dom won’t come without us having to sacrifice and work together toward something bigger than just us. We must be able to (like Coach Donovan) face those things within our world that God longs for us to eradicate. We must commit ourselves to the kind of work that says, “That work is more important than anything else.”
Meister Eckhart once wrote, “Everything I see, hear, touch, feel, taste, speak, think, imagine, is completing a perfect circle God has drawn.”
Each and every day we must work to see that perfect circle God has drawn into the hearts of all humankind (of all creation)… God’s work is only done when we work together in community to complete that circle. Amen.