Words Worth Hearing: The Ten Words

Preached by Michael Cheuk, March 8, 2015
Taken from Exodus 20:1-17 NIV

Our assigned lectionary text from the Old Testament this morning is described as the “Ten Commandments,” most often understood as ten laws given by God that everyone in society ought to follow. There is controversy over the Ten Commandments these days. Some see all the ills of our modern society and lament the fact that fewer and fewer people today know and obey these commandments. Others see the Ten Commandments as an outdated vestige of a legalistic religion given by a kill-joy “god” who says, “Uh, uh, uh . . . you’d better NOT do that” eight out of the ten times. Still others may wonder what the relationship of these laws given to Moses versus the notion of grace taught by Jesus. How can we understand these verses and their role in our lives as Christians?

There’s no way that I can deeply address this question in the span of one sermon. But let me try to offer one perspective for your consideration this morning.  First of all, in Judaism, these verses are technically not understood as commandments. Verse 1 says, “And God spoke all these words.” In Biblical Hebrew, these verses from Exodus 20 are called Asereth ha-D’varîm, which is translated literally as the “ten words” or “ten sayings.” In the Greek version of the Bible, these verses are called the “Decalogue,” which literally means, “the ten words,” derived from “deca”- ten, and “logos” – word. In Judaism, these words are not understood as individual commandments; rather they are understood as ten categories or classifications of the 613 commandments or mitzvot scattered throughout the Torah or the first five books of the Bible.

Secondly, in general society and even among some Christians, because we read these verses mainly as commandments or as laws, there is a temptation to interpret these ten words legalistically as burdensome and guilt inducing, in opposition to the grace we find in Christ. However, that’s not at all how Jews read and understand these verses. Indeed, for Jews, the first word or “command” is not “I am the Lord your God…you shall have no other gods before me.”  The first word is simply: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” The first word is not, “I am God and you’d better not worship other gods!” No. The first word is “I am the Lord, YAHWEH, your God, and I freed you from slavery in Egypt!” What an amazing, gracious first word that is!

We Protestant Christians tend to skip over God’s prior word of freedom in order to jump right into the “thou shalt nots.” No wonder some people think these words are legalistic! The reality is that these ten words and the commandments of God presuppose a loving relationship, a relationship in which God made the first move in freeing God’s people from captivity so that they could live as a freed people. When seen from this perspective, the rest of the words take on a very different feel. Instead of being restrictive, they become guardians of true freedom.

When I attended freshman orientation at Rice University, we were all welcomed as the new entering class, and they impressed upon us what a privilege it was to be selected. Then we learned about the academic honor code. We memorized this statement and wrote it on every exam: “I have neither given nor receive any aid on this exam.” Obeying this code did not get us accepted into Rice; we were already students, already bonafide Owls. This code did not apply to University of Houston students, it applied to Rice students. This code formed us into the kind of people we were going to be for the next four years. It formed the kind of academic community we were going to be at Rice. Instead of seeing the academic honor code as restrictive, it became a source of pride for us. It fostered trust among students and professors, and gave us the freedom to take our exams in our dorm rooms or in the library, and not worry about others cheating.

In another example, when we got married, Beth and I exchanged a series of words during the wedding ceremony. In those words, we vowed or promised each other that we would forsake all others, that we would be faithful to each other for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish; from this day forward until death do us part. Beth and I did not see these vows as restrictive – all jokes about balls and chains aside. No, I had freely wooed her and she freely said “yes.” We were eager and happy to publicly proclaim these vows because they represented who we wanted to be as a couple. These vows were not rules that covered all situations. They represented general categories and boundaries that we were not going to cross, and they gave us freedom to live our lives together with love, faith, and trust.

The honor code and marriage vows represent covenants, sacred agreements based on a prior relationship that extend into the future. Covenants bind two parties and form them into a unique community. The same is true of these ten words given to Moses at Mount Sinai. As Craig Kocher explained: “The [Ten Commandments] should not be read as divine finger-wagging or moral hand-slapping. To be bound in covenant with God is to be set free to live as God’s people. God’s gift of the law to Israel is a means of protecting the community, now that they are no longer slaves, and opening a path to the flourishing of life, both communal and individual.”[1]

The word “freedom” has a nice ring to it, but it is a challenge to live it out. The Israelites struggled with freedom. Some wanted to go back to Egypt and live as slaves. Better to return to a life of the known, no matter how miserable, than venture out to a life of the unknown. That’s why God continued to speak more words. In the first tablet of the Ten Commandments, we hear words that instruct us to love God with our whole selves. It also acknowledges that other gods and other slave masters abound … not just in Egypt, but in the wilderness at Mt. Sinai and in twenty-first century America. Therefore, “do not have other gods before me.”

For you see, people are always looking for a master or a god to serve, and it is tempting to serve a man-made symbol of success rather than an unseen, mysterious God. Therefore, the question is not “How can we be free from any Master?” The question is “Since we will always serve a master, which Master is worthy of our service?” Anything that is an image of a created thing is idolatrous and not worthy of your service, whether that is a golden calf, or any other human-made symbol of success, wealth, and power.

Idolatry is sneaky, and it works its way into our lives in other ways. One way is how we misuse the name of God. In ancient cultures, there’s a popular belief that to know the name of a deity is to know the secret of that deity’s character and power. In other words, to know the name of a god is to have power over that god. But at the burning bush, when Moses asked for the name of the God of Abraham and Isaac, the reply was Yahweh, a form of the verb “to be,” which means something like: “I am who I am,” or “I will be who I will be.” God is here saying something akin to “My name is above all names; I am present to you beyond all names. Do not try to objectify me.” In other words, God is a presence that cannot be controlled. God cannot be reduced to intellectual affirmations or experiential moments. God cannot be co-opted to side with any political ideology or nationality. God is wild and any attempt to use God’s name to put God in a box of any kind is idolatrous and, I might add, useless and “in vain.” This commandment is God’s word declaring God’s own freedom from all human attempts to domesticate the “I AM.”

Another way idolatry creeps into our lives is when we give our work or occupation ultimate significance and meaning.  God says: “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.” We make this word legalistic by focusing on which actions constitute the breaking of the Sabbath. God instead was making sure that the Israelites stayed free. For you see, slaves don’t get Sabbath rest. Slaves work all the time. Sabbath observance is the most powerful and subversive way for God’s people to declare that we are not slaves to our bosses, to productivity, and to the global market economy. Remembering the Sabbath is a word that frees us from being enslaved to human work.

God then says “Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you.” I believe God included this word because honoring our parents is the training ground in which we learn to love and honor God. No parents are perfect, but most parents try to give unconditional love and to raise their children right. Years ago, Keith Smith, former Senior Minister here at UBC, gave a sermon illustration that has stayed with me. He recalled the time when he was leaving as a freshman to Clemson University. As he left the house, the last words from his mother were these ten words: “Keith, remember who you are, and how we raised you.” Keith’s mom was basically saying, “Keith, we love you. As you leave this household and go out on your own, don’t forsake the values that we tried to instill in you. Remember that you’re a Smith, so live accordingly.”

In addition, the Fifth Commandment also transitions us from our vertical relationship to God to our horizontal relationships to other human beings as we get to the second half of the Ten Commandments.  In our public debates about the role of the Ten Commandments in society, we often emphasize this second half, but if we look at the text, we’ll easily see that—at least based on the number of verses and words used—the emphasis is on the first half of the Ten Commandments. I think that’s because once we have our relationship to God right, once we live in the freedom afforded by God, then everything else will fall into place. So, I will only briefly discuss the last five commandments or words.

The word prohibiting murder instructs us that human beings are made in God’s image, and that God is trying to free us from the slave masters of violence, vengeance, and hatred that compels us to unlawfully take the life of another human being.

The word prohibiting adultery instructs us that God is trying to free us from the slave masters of unbridled lust, and even the idol of romance. In the marriage vows that we make, we promise that we will be a faithful people, to God and to our spouse.

The word prohibiting theft instructs us that God is trying to free us from the slave masters of materialism. When we are content with what God has given to us, we do not need to take shortcuts to obtain more at the expense of others.

The word prohibiting bearing false testimony instructs us that God is trying to free us from the enslavement of our lies and falsehoods. Why do we lie? Sometimes it is a malicious attempt to hurt others. But many times, I know that I’ve lied so that I wouldn’t lose face over something I had done. In that case, I’ve made human approval or my reputation more important than the righteousness I have in Christ. This is a word that frees us to acknowledge the truth in love.

Let’s build up a community by speaking truthfully of our neighbors.

Finally, the word prohibiting covetousness reminds us that God is trying to free us from the insidious practice of comparing ourselves to our neighbors. Our worth is often measured by keeping up with the Joneses. But unfortunately, even if we surpass the Joneses, there are always the Johnsons, the Smiths, the Gates and the Buffetts to catch. We can’t win the comparison game, and it’s a horrible way to live. Thankfully, this word frees us from all that.

During this Lenten season, these are ten words worth hearing. These ten words are not simply a legalistic litany of “thou shalt nots,” nor are they the trivial and irrelevant rules dictated by a kill-joy God. They are God’s ten freeing words that show us the way to abundant life and healthy relationships—with God, with oneself, and with one another. Of course, history has clearly shown that neither the Israelites nor we are capable of perfectly obeying these ten words from God.  Over and over, we have chosen bondage instead of true freedom.  That’s the bad news. The Good News is that we can know God through Jesus Christ.  Jesus is the Savior who can free us from our idolatries.  Jesus is the one who summarized all the 613 commands into two: love God and love neighbor. Jesus is the perfect fulfillment of God’s law.  The Good News is that first and foremost, before we do the Ten Commandments, God wants us to remember that we are a people for whom Christ has freed from our slavery to sin, so that we are now freed to love God and love one another.

Lent is a time for listening. I close this sermon with these ten words worth hearing: “In Christ, you are freed to love God and others.” Amen.

[1] Craig Kocher, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide, Third Sunday in Lent.