Text: Exodus 20:1-17
THE TEN COMMANDMENTS are imposing. They sound so official. And important. And bossy. Percy Weasley would love to preach at you about this text. I’m a little more reluctant. Feels like beating you over the head with a stone-tablet Bible. Feels like I should have worn a tie. Feels like, unless I can part the Red Sea with my outstretched hand, maybe I have no business telling you what to do.
But maybe . . . THE TEN COMMANDMENTS aren’t meant to be so big and bossy as much as they are meant to be a help and a guide and a source of wisdom, and who among us couldn’t use a little more of THAT? Maybe the ten commandments are just your size. Bite size. Edible. Digestible.
Which is not to say they aren’t important, that they aren’t exploding with nutrition, that they aren’t full of very big wisdom. I just mean that maybe the ten commandments aren’t here to bully you into submission but to feed you into health.
Lent is a season of self-reflection and soul-searching. What’s a better way to do that than to feed our hearts with understanding? It’s not about whether or not you measure up. It’s about whether you keep ingesting the wisdom. Keep reminding yourself of what is good, and true, and wholesome. Keep steering yourself back, gently, to the way of God.
So, I’m going to take us on a journey through these ten things, because for centuries we people of faith have tended to agree these are ten things worth visiting over and over. By revisiting them again and again, we hope to discover new insight and new hope each time. If you stop at each one and give yourself a performance score between 1 and 10, you’ve got the wrong idea. If you stop at each one and ponder its meaning, intake its guidance, and renew your love of what is good, then I think you’re in the right frame of mind.
Also, maybe don’t try to take all of this in at once. Listen for the one thing, or the two things, that speak to you at this time, and settle in there for a while. Feast on one, chase it down with a second, if that seems fitting. But don’t overeat. You’ve got a whole lifetime to grow.
1) Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
What else is a god, but the thing we look to for deliverance? And any thing that cannot truly deliver necessarily becomes addictive, whether it be drinking or over-working, wealth, sex, or Facebook, shopping or eating—all these are empty as gods.
What does it mean to say that God is jealous? That God is petty and vindictive? Of course not. To say that God is jealous is to say that God is desirous. God wants you. How remarkable and delicious. You are wanted.
All those other gods? They don’t really want you. They want your money, want your time, want your obsession, want your never-ending sacrifice to them, but they don’t want you. This is why there’s nothing ultimately satisfying in it for you. There’s no mutuality. Only the taking, taking, taking of your sanity, your energy, and your attention. False gods don’t give back. False gods don’t give a shit. (Or replace with: False gods don’t give a rip.) Not about you, not about your wellbeing, not about this thing we call relationship. False gods are black holes that suck you in and don’t let go. False gods are greedy.
God is not one bit greedy. Just a teensy anxious for you to wake up already and remember how much you are loved.
2) Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.
This is the prime temptation of all religion. It is why many people are leaving churches in a hurry, to escape this world-destroying temptation. We are tired of small gods, made in our image—as Anne Lamott calls them, gods who hate all the same people we do. But religion just can’t seem to help itself. Religion keeps inventing gods to match its prejudices, gods to back its wars, and gods to sanction its pettiness.
But if you’ve got a God who is far more magnanimous, far more generous, and far more merciful than you could ever hope to be, well then, you’ve discovered a God worth your worship. If your God explodes through walls, past boundaries and out of boxes, then you’ve discovered a God you’d be hard pressed to contain. People who’ve met God for real begin to throw their images away. They happily discard what is graven in exchange for what is grand. A graven image is what you make when you’ve run out of imagination. God is what you name it when you are enlivened by Mystery.
3) Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain.
This is a lot like the one before it. It means: don’t slap God’s name on ideas that don’t belong to him. Don’t use “The Bible says” like a police baton. What is cursing but to condemn someone or something as if you were judge, which is to take on a role that is not yours to take? I know we’re talking Ten Commandments here, and I’m getting a little ahead of things to bring up Jesus, but humor me for a moment: Jesus once healed a man on the Sabbath. The fear-filled people gripped their frosted hearts and cried, “The Bible says you can’t!” God was dismayed, “I just healed someone! Open your eyes.” (My paraphrase.)
When you use God’s name to control, oppress, manipulate or reject someone, that’s taking the Lord’s name in vain. Stop doing that. It isn’t kind, and you’re missing the point.
If you’re going to use God-talk, don’t be glib and don’t be mean. Don’t be ostentatious and don’t be trite. Have some reverence. Talk God when you see miracles. Talk God when you’re in love. Talk God when you are amazed. Talk God when you need help. Talk God when you see things changing in wholesome ways. When in doubt, keep silent.
4) Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.
Do you know why the Hebrew people needed a Sabbath day? Because they were recovering slaves. All they knew how to do was work, work, work, produce, produce, produce, serve, serve, serve.
I don’t know what you are a slave to, but you need a break.
Stop the mad dash. Every. Single. Week. Stop. See whether or not the world keeps spinning without you. (It does.) You have to be reminded regularly that you don’t hold all things together. That is God’s job. Yours is much smaller, and whatever your true and modest work is, it starts with being. Sit. Be. Listen. Breathe.
5) Honor thy father and thy mother.
For most of us, this commandment takes years to decades of good therapy. Don’t give up.
6) Thou shalt not kill.
Stop trying to kill the movements, the ideas, and the changes you don’t like. Lean in to whatever good thing you see living and thriving and breathing and resurrecting. Release all your violent attempts at control. Open your hands and receive.
Gandhi said, “If one does not practice nonviolence in one’s personal relations with others and hopes to use it in bigger affairs, one is vastly mistaken. Nonviolence, like charity, must begin at home . . . The more you develop it in your own being, the more infectious it becomes till it overwhelms your surroundings and by and by might over-sweep the world.”
7) Thou shalt not commit adultery.
If you’ve promised to stay faithful to someone, stay faithful. This also might take years of therapy. Learn how to be loyal and true. Faithfulness is not a natural byproduct of falling madly in love. Faithful is what you learn how to be every time you make a choice to be honest with a partner. Faithfulness is when you keep riding the roller coaster of life, keep showing up, keep acting with integrity.
Do you think I am talking only about romantic relationships? I am not. Be faithful to who you are. Be faithful to where you are called. Be faithful to the path set before you. If you start betraying yourself, you are not likely to stay true to much of anything.
8) Thou shalt not steal.
Own what you have, own who you are, and own your own story. Do not try to be somebody else. Do not wish to be somebody else or you will never find out how marvelous you are.
Don’t steal a conversation and make it about you. Don’t steal the spotlight or the attention. Don’t copycat. Become enamored with what you already have; admire who you already are. Learn how to hold your own history with appreciation and awe. This requires relinquishing shame.
Confident people have no need to steal. Fully alive people have no need to steal. Grateful people have no need to steal anything at all. Once you’re comfortable in your own skin, you won’t need to borrow anyone else’s.
9) Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.
I know someone who is always remarking about this or that, “It was the cutest thing ever . . .” which is hardly the worst of lies, but it undeniably falls short of the truth. Perhaps it would do us some good to recognize we aren’t the best of truth-tellers. Perhaps if we lived in a world where we weren’t so quick to exaggerate, so quick to project surety over things one cannot really be sure about, and so quick to jump to conclusions . . . then perhaps we’d also have a world with less polarization, less misunderstanding, and less hate. If honesty were a value in the way we speak to one another about our opinions—if we were not allowed to say “that’s the most atrocious, idiotic thing ever” to our opponents—would that change the conversation?
If we were more honest with ourselves about ourselves, would that set us all free? I think it is worth trying. Maintaining the web of lies is exhausting, is it not? Keeping up with your perfect image will run you into the ground. Getting honest will help you soar.
10) Thou shalt not covet.
That is to say, learn to be content. As if that were easy! It’s not. Your raging insecurity will fight you on this daily. Regular acts of surrender and gratitude will help tremendously.
People have often remarked that the first four commandments are about one’s relationship to God, while the last six are about one’s relationship to others. This is not true. Do you not see how the tenth commandment and the first are the same? We have circled back to desiring that which cannot ultimately satisfy. There is no separating one’s relationship to God from one’s relationship to people and things. They are all interconnected.
If you are open to God and all God’s grace and all God’s gifts, the coveting will fade away, as well as the grasping, the stealing, the murdering, the disrespecting, the over-working, the cursing, the lying and the betraying. All these pieces of wisdom relate to one another, which is why if you come to understand just one, the others will begin to fall in place as well. If you ignore one, all the rest of your body will catch the sickness.
May we keep revisiting these ten things and feasting on their wisdom. May our truest selves be unleashed, and may God capture our imagination with love and with mystery, both now and forever. Amen.
Kyndall Rae Rothaus is the pastor of Covenant Baptist Church in San Antonio, Texas, and the author of Preacher Breath: Essays and Sermons (Smyth and Helwys: 2015).