For the past month we have been reading about the Israelites and their
escape from Egypt. We have heard about how God has saved them through miracle
and miracle. All that is wonderful. But after wandering in the desert for a
while, without any government, without any laws – the people need guidance.
They are no longer under Egyptian law. So at some point they need to establish
rules for their new community. How are they to treat each other? What things
are off limits?
It is a situation very similar to what happened on Boxing Day, December 26,
1989. Romania was in turmoil. The previous day, President Nicolae Ceausescu,
unable to quell the tide of dissent in Bucharest, had been tried and executed.
Now no one was in charge. Western reporters flooded into the country from the
south, searching for someone who could speak English. Finally they found
someone, and in one sentence she summed up not only Romania's predicament, but
the human condition: "We have freedom," she said, "but we don't
know what to do with it."
That’s where the Israelites were – they now had freedom, but they didn’t know
what to do with it. What is the best way to live?
Today’s reading begins a section of the Bible where law and rules become an
important part of the story. Mixed in with the stories of Moses and the people
will be long sections on how the temple is to be organized, how people are to
treat strangers, what to do if a person steals from another person; and so on.
Believe it or not, up until this point, God has never really laid all of
that out. The people have lived and acted pretty much without that kind of
guidance. But this moment in time changes that.
This new guidance from God begins with one of the hallmarks in the history
of religious law. We call it the 10 commandments. Scholars looking at the
original form of this passage and reading it in the Hebrew, suggest that the
commandments listed here, may actually have first been simply 10 single words.
Murder. Idolatry. Adultery. And so. They were a shorthand for a rule of life to
guide the Israelite people.
Remember these 10 words, one for each finger, and then obey them.
So obviously these were critical for the Israelite people. They needed laws
for their new community that was free from Egypt and united under their service
of God – but what do these 10 commandments do for us? Because we do not live in
a society without laws. In fact, in our country, our state and our community,
we have thousands of laws. Way more than fit in the bible. There are laws about
murder, building codes, medical marijuana, how fast you can drive, where to
ride your bicycle, and what you can put in your garbage cans. In fact it is
estimated there are 35 million laws on the books in the United States alone.
So we have no shortage of laws – do we still need the 10 commandments? That
may sound like a joke, but honestly, do we? What role do these commandments
play in our lives? Several of them are covered by a whole host of laws on the
books in the United States, so do we need them?
Actually a Christian Sunday School teacher wrote Rabbi Adam Morris’ a
question much like this. That may sound strange, but Rabbi Morris works with a
Christian Sunday School curriculum company and helps to answer questions people
have about the Hebrew Scriptures which we sometimes call the Old Testament.
Here is the question:
“Dear Rabbi, I teach Sunday school to young people. This month we are doing
a bulletin board on the ten commandments. Could you tell me if there is a more
modern way to interpret them for youth?”
Rabbi Morris answers: “You ask a great question that cuts to the heart of
the matter as to why we teach Scripture – or as we Jews may call it, text. We
teach it because on some level we believe in our heart of hearts how relevant
it is – no matter the anachronistic language or even uncomfortable story
details (Leviticus and leprosy come to mind!). We believe that there is
relevance to us today. Even though the language of the commandments can be somewhat
distant, at the core of each is a truth that each of us knows and faces. I
think that the key to interpreting them today is hooking into that truth and staying
positive and appropriate.”
“Jews order the ten commandments a bit differently than in the Christian
tradition, but I’ll share our way of counting.”
He then deals with the commandments one by one.
“I am the Lord your God can be re-told as: Knowing who is the one with the
“Wrongful use of God’s name can be re-told as: Being aware of the language
we use (cursing, blessing, etc.).”
“Idol Worship -- Following after the god of stuff (watches, clothes,
“Shabbat/Sabbath day --Taking care of ourselves/souls.”
“Parents -- (Too much relevancy here!).”
Let me pause for a second here so that those of you who are taking notes
can catch up, and so the rest of you can digest those first five commandments.
[pause – after a few moments continue]
Ready to go on? Okay, so for the next one we could say that the reminder
about the evil of Murder is that God is “All about life.”
“Stealing -- Acting on jealousy and feeling left out (see #10).”
“Adultery -- Focus on the positive – the need for loving relationships.”
“Bearing false witness -- Truth – how much they value it from others.”
“Coveting -- Not feeling good about themselves so wanting what everyone else
What Rabbi Morris encourages us to do as we look at the commandments, is to
look for the deeper truth in them of what God expects us to value most. These
should continue to influence the way we live our daily lives. They act as
guiding principles for what is most important, and what brings life.
Suddenly the things that are most important are: the God who made us, the
relationships with family, the relationships of marriage, the relationships in
community. We are reminded to take care of ourselves, to be careful what we
say, to value the lives of others. We are reminded that dishonesty and jealousy
are harmful to ourselves and to others. We are told that stuff is less
important and doesn’t need to be the object of our desire, and reminded that God
more important than we often give God credit for.
If we were to truly live these 10 laws out, our lives would be greatly
changed. Can you imagine no jealousy, no chasing after material things, no
shooters from the 32nd floor of a hotel, no threat of war with North
Korea. And people would actually take care of their souls so that they felt
that deep connection with God that they need to be truly fulfilled. These 10
laws could change everything for us. As Psalm 19 says, “All of these are
righteous, they are sweeter than honey—even dripping off the honeycomb! No
doubt about it, your servant is enlightened by them; there is great reward in
So yes, there is a reason for us to keep reading and learning the 10
commandments – even if the language is old, and at first glance they don’t
relate to our day to day modern life. The reality is they serve as a baseline
reminder that there are deeper values to life.
The founder of United Methodist, John Wesley said, “The ritual or
ceremonial law, delivered by Moses to the children of Israel, containing all
the injunctions and ordinances which related to the old sacrifices and service
of the temple, our Lord indeed did come to destroy, to dissolve, and utterly
abolish. . .. all the Apostles, elders,
and brethren, being assembled with one accord, (Acts 15:22) declared, that to
command them to keep this law, was to "subvert their souls;" and that
"it seemed good to the Holy Ghost" and to them, to lay no such burden
upon them. (Acts 15:28) This "hand-writing of ordinances" our Lord
did blot out, take away, and nail to His cross.”
“But the moral law, contained in the Ten Commandments, and enforced by the
prophets, He did not take away. It was not the design of His coming to revoke
any part of this. This is a law which never can be broken, which stands fast as
the faithful witness in heaven.”
They remind us in 10 short statements, perhaps even in 10 words, that God
cares about our religious lives, which is obvious, but God also cares about the
quality of our lives and that means God gives us instructions about how we
treat each other, and even what we desire most.
They tell us how to use the freedom we have, given to us by God as we make
choices each day, and they guide us to the best results. So take some time and
meditate upon these, and let them help you prioritize how you live out each
day. After all, if you can work to obey 35 million laws for our country, you
can certainly work on these 10 for yourself.
F. Wells, "God Spoke These Words," The ChristianCentury, 3/15/00, p.