(a sermon for August 29, 2021, the 14th Sunday after Pentecost; fourth in a series, based on Exodus 20:12-17)
So let me just say it: My word, there’s a lot to unpack here!
Understand when I first envisioned this sermon series, I realized that I couldn’t possibly do justice to all ten of the commandments in one 20-minute sermon; likewise, I wasn’t feeling inclined (at least for now!) to take ten weeks to go through each commandment individually. Better, I thought, to address these ten “words” of God more or less thematically, after the matter biblical scholars who like to think of the ten commandments as being divided into two parts: the first four commandments having to do with our relationship with God (that is, having no other gods before the Lord, not worshiping idols, not taking the Lord’s name in vain and keeping the Sabbath), and the remaining six commandments having to do with our human behavior and our relationships with each other. In other words, say these same scholars, that first set of commandments emphasize the vertical dimension of our relationship with God, while the second set highlights our horizontal relationships with each other and serve to help us live in community with each other.
That seemed to me to be as good way as any to approach these ten commandments… that is, until I took a closer look at our text for this morning and realized that within each and every one of the six verses we’ve shared today there’s at least a sermon and a half on which to preach, far more than I have time for today! But not only that, given the whole human experience and our post-modern sensibilities, it must also be said here that wrapped around each one of these six “horizontal” commandments we’re looking at this morning there’s this nagging, open-ended question that doesn’t seem to want to go away: “Sure, it’s a commandment… but what about….?”
For instance: “Honor your father and your mother.” That seems straightforward enough, right? Honor, from the Hebrew word kabod, which means“to be heavy” and refers to the respect due one’s parents because they are the ones who carry the heavy weight of authority. But what about… if those parents misuse that authority? What if they are abusive or neglectful or worse? What about if they’re simply awful parents? Are we still obligated to honor them… at all?
Or, “You shall not murder,” or to use the more traditional translation, “Thou shalt not kill.” Now, there’s a commandment that reveals a whole lot of grey area! What about… war? What about an act of retaliation in the wake of a horrific act of terrorism? What about acting in self-defense? And what about the death penalty? And this to say nothing of the many instances in scripture, in particular with the people of Old Testament – where, as many good church people have pointed out to me over the years – there is ample amountsof killing going on, and not just in battle; which seems to suggest that even the heroes of the Bibleweren’t holding very closely to God’s word on this subject!
And it goes on and on… bearing false witness? Well, everybody lies sometimes, right? Coveting that which belongs to your neighbor? Well, you can’t blame people for wishing they had what somebody else has! And stealing? Well, of course stealing isn’t good, but to quote pastor and author Ray Pritchard, “God demands 100% honesty 100% of the time. [And] that’s not easy to do. Most of the time,” Pritchard writes, “I feel like I can handle 70% honesty 85% of the time. Or perhaps 90% honesty 65% of the time.”
“As I look at my life,” Pritchard, concludes, “I seem to be pretty good at being basically honest most of the time. I usually am honest in almost everything I do. Graded on a curve, I think my honesty is far above most people’s.”
Do you see what we’re up against here? The LORD our God – that is, Yahweh, the great I AM – has given us these six divine words as a way not only of living in community with one another, but also, together with the other four, as precepts by which we learn how to follow our liberating, redeeming God into the promised land of life that is both abundant and eternal. And understand, these are not, as I’ve mentioned before, a series of suggestions on God’s part, they are God’s commandments; God never intended to grade us on a curve! And yet, what we’ve managed to do in this and every generation is to water down these six horizontal commandments to a matter of simply making a good effort; to at best try to be better than most other people… most of the time, anyway.
Even adultery. (Thought I’d skipped over that one, didn’t you?) Some years ago in a prior church, one day after worship I was approached by a very distraught, tearful woman who needed some pastoral advice regarding her faltering marriage; a marriage that was falling apart because of her being engaged in an adulterous relationship. So we sat down and as she shared with me her story, she gave me at least a dozen or more reasons (excuses, really) how and why this relationship had happened, but expressed to me that she was wholly committed to saving her marriage and to making amends for what she’d done and how should she go about doing that? Well, I said that the sincere desire to seek healing in her marriage was a good first step; that couple’s therapy was definitely a good idea; that it would certainly take a lot of time and hard work but forgiveness and reconciliation was still possible… and then I said, “And of course, you will need to immediately end this relationship with the ‘other man.’” And after a very long and very awkward silence (at least awkward for me!), the woman answered, “Oh, I can’t do that. I won’t do that. Why do I have to do that?”
Suffice to say I never saw that woman again! To this day, I’m still not sure what she wanted or expected me to say to her. Absolution, perhaps? Permission? Maybe… All I know is that with this commandment, as with all the other commandments, there is far less wiggle room than we would like to believe. And maybe that’s because all too often you and I insist on thinking of them as merely impossible rules that are made to be broken; or if not broken, then at least to be bent to our advantage! Or, as writer and Old Testament scholar Glenn Pemberton has written, “The Ten Commandments [often] function like boundary markers or “fence posts” designed to keep us inside the field. We’re fine so long as we don’t go past the fence markers.” Better, Pemberton writes, to see them more as ‘centering principles…’ [that keep us] looking for the principle that lies behind the commandment.” And, I might add here, lead us in the ways we should live with one another in this life, as well as in the ways we live with the LORD our God.
That makes a whole lot of sense to me, friends! Such an approach not only changes how we read those commandments; it also, I think, helps us to better follow them.
“Honor your father and your mother.” Truthfully, there’s been wrestling with this commandment all throughout history: Martin Luther said this command applies no matter how “lowly, poor, frail, and [odd] they may be.” The Heidelberg Catechism, the Calvinist document that dates back to 1543, says it involves patiently bearing “with their weaknesses and infirmities.” In other words, this commandment has never been for perfect families with perfect parents and perfect kids; this is for all of us, which quite frankly makes it all the more difficult to follow! But did you notice in the reading today that there’s actually more to this commandment, as in “Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.” That’s a very intentional addendum, because what it reminds us is that the parent/child relationship is foundation of any culture, and not simply the individual! So, the principle that lies behind this commandment – one that very much applies to us today – is that in a society that so often struggles to maintain even the most basic of relationships, to seek to honor and respect and care for those who came before is vital – socially, economically, and spiritually – to the basic functioning of society… and it’s also indicative of how we feel about our relationship with God. Without it, writes Darryl Dash, “life becomes diminished for everyone,” but with it, we “create a social climate that enhances the possibility of a good and long life, not only for each person but for society as a whole.”
Do you see what happens when we approach these words of God in this way? There’s a reason that “You shall not kill” is more correctly translated as “You shall not murder.” Because what we’re talking about does not so much address the morally ambiguous circumstances that have been faced throughout history and in these present days (and, to be sure, in this violent world those are worthy questions to be asking ourselves and does apply here!), as it addresses the darkness, the anger, the resentment and the violence that so fills the human heart that one could be led to taking the life of another; which is the polar opposite of God’s intention for us or for our world at the time of creation, and an affront to our relationship with Yahweh… the principle behind the commandment!
And it goes on… Do not steal? If all that we have is a blessing given by God, why would we wish to take that blessing away from our neighbor? Do not bear false witness? It actually just kind of makes sense that the first rule of any and all human relationships is honesty, fairness and a good level of compassion… and since God already knows what’s in our hearts it also makes sense that how we treat others equates to how we treat God. Actually, pretty much the same thing can be said about not coveting your neighbor’s house, “or wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor?” Granted, there’s great detriment to living a life filled with envy for what others have, but even worse is a heart that’s completely out of tune with God and with what God has given us. Because it’s that abundant relationship with God that matters most, and it’s what sets life and society on the right pathway. As Paul so beautifully expressed to the Philippians, “I have learned to be content with whatever I have… In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” It’s the principle behind the commandment!
And, yes, even – and, dare I say, especially – adultery. There’s so much that could be said here: about the sanctity of life and the sanctity of marriage, about the utter importance of fidelity and trust in all human relationships, and about the often-irreparable brokenness that results from being unfaithful. But at the center of this commandment exists the truth that being faithful in those relationships ends up reflecting the image of God in this world and in how God has intended for us to live with one another; most especially the people we love the most… again, it’s the principle behind the commandment.
God, you see, has given us life. God has given us love. God has given us his name so that we might know him better. And God has given us a Law… so that we might learn how to follow Him, and how to live with each other.
At the end of the day, it all really comes down to our living in the manner we know we should be living.
That’s one of the mistakes you and I often make, you know… many are the times and situations that we are quick to point out how others are quick to bend and/or break the ten commandments; as though those words of the LORD are the gauge by which we are permitted to judge others. The truth is – and admittedly it’s often a hard truth – these are words that if we’re reading them right lead us to stand in judgment on ourselves.
What’s that we say in our liturgy for communion? We stand in the need of God’s mercy and assurance… not to mention forgiveness in the name of Jesus Christ. But if love and mercy is what we need – and it is – perhaps a personal encounter with God’s Law is what will put us on a new pathway of life as God intends for it to be.
So might it be for us, beloved…
… and may our thanks be to God.
Amen and AMEN.
© 2021 Rev. Michael W. Lowry. All Rights Reserved.