Exodus 20:1-20 10.8.17
If you start talking about the big 10 at our house, you are usually talking about college sports. The Big Ten conference includes some powerhouse university teams (actually there are 14 of them, not 10, which always confuses me!), one of which is now University of Maryland. They have fierce competition with one another and are known to provide good entertainment for sports enthusiasts on fall Saturdays.
But that is not the big ten we are focused on for today. Today the big ten are the ten moral laws given to Moses on the top of the mountain. They are the ways of operating which God gave as a gift to the people of Israel, a people wandering around in the wilderness, trying to figure out who they were. Think for a minute about their context, their life situation. They were very suddenly no longer slaves in Egypt. They no longer had masters telling them what they could do and not do. But they had not designed a new plan of operation or a leadership succession plan of any kind. They were most definitely pushed into a process of being shaped into a new people. They needed guidance, shaping, parameters, formation.
I really like the imagery used by Barbara Brown Taylor, preacher, author, theologian: she imagines the big ten as the ten tall tent posts which provide the framework for the tent of God’s promise and God’s grace. Without the posts, the covering of God’s promise and God’s grace would not provide the gathering, living, serving space needed for the people of God to operate. The posts gave them something to hang God’s grace on, a framework, a shape. She imagines the big ten as holding up God’s tent, enabling them to survive in the wilderness, enabling them to form themselves into a people with a moral structure to stand within, knitting them together, giving them a particular identity as a people shaped by God.
I find Taylor’s imagery helpful when I look at the way we seem to continue to wander in the wilderness today. Despite our years of creating structures and governments and laws with consequences, we still live in a world where safety is not guaranteed, where crises happen with regularity that are out of our control. We don’t share a common understanding of the value of the big ten with everyone we cross paths with during the week. We can easily get angry or despondent or depressed by the news of a man with an unprecedented number of weapons attacking a crowd in Las Vegas, or the almost daily shootings in Baltimore, or the tardiness of help offered after hurricanes smash entire islands, or the deterioration of our fledgling US-Cuba relationships due to strange attacks on embassy personnel, or the divisions along ethnic, cultural or racial lines which exist within nations and between nations. We are wandering in the wilderness, still looking for a safe space, still hoping for a community from which to draw support and strength.
In the midst of our wilderness, we too need to be reminded of God’s gift of those tent poles and the cover of God’s grace. Listen to these ten poles again, this time in short, positive form: Put God first. Worship God only. Keep God’s name holy. Set aside regular time for rest and reflection. Honor your parents. Respect life. Be faithful to your covenants. Honor your neighbor’s property. Tell the truth. Be content with who you are and what you have. The first four commands deal with our relationship with our Creator. The last six deal with our relationship with one another. They provide a healthy framework for living in community with one another. When the big ten hold up the tent, they create space for all. Knock one down and the tent sags, removing opportunities for some and damaging relationships with those who remain.
The big ten are part of the Torah, the law. But they are not case law, like the laws described in later chapters of Exodus or in the book of Leviticus, the kind of laws with a specific punishment attached. like this one: “When someone borrows an animal from another and it is injured or dies while the owner isn’t present, full payment must be made. If the owner was present, no payment needs to be made.“ We might laugh at the old laws, but we continue to live by a set of case laws, each with prescribed consequences—for driving under the influence, for running a red light, for breaking into a store, etc. They are intended to keep order, to maintain justice, to provide for the welfare of our society—we always strive to be law-abiding citizens, right? Many are wise and good. Many can be called out as outdated, unjust or unhealthy. The big ten are not case law, but apodictic law, divine commands intended to shape the way we live, the foundation of our way of living in the world together, setting general expectations for the way we treat one another, creating a moral code.
None of us will be perfect at living out this moral code. We can point to any number of times when we have strayed from the big ten with our thoughts, words or actions. There are some which we struggle with more than others. And then there are some we think we are keeping and then we look more deeply and begin to question ourselves. For example, honoring my parents. Does that simply mean not saying or doing anything to harm them? That is one level of honoring parents. Or does it mean making a commitment to stay in contact with them as we all grow older, providing for their welfare in their old age as they have provided for ours in our youth? Where is the line between honoring and not honoring parents? How far do you go? None of those details are in the commandment. We are left to interpret them for ourselves in our own situations.
These ten commands are a moral framework for the way operate as a people of God. When we live within these confines of God’s big tent—it creates a space of welcome, of peace, of trust, of love, of encouragement.
We could pick any one of the big ten to explore, but this morning I want to lift up the first commandment, the first word. I choose this one because I think it must be the solid, tall, center pole for the tent. Each of the others is directly affected by the first word. It is verse 3: “You must have no other gods before me.” God knows there are other “gods” (little g) which we surround ourselves with. God knew it then and God knows it now—we human beings will make gods out of anything that we give our primary attention and focus to, maybe our bank account or our mirror or our calendar or our electronic devices. God is insisting that we have a singular focus on God, and then we are better able to keep the rest of our lives in proper perspective. Our focus on God affects everything else we do.
Many translations indicate that the words “before me” in v. 3 could also be read “besides me”. The Hebrew used here describes the idea of allowing something in between us and God, like blocking the line of sight between our face and God’s face. You could understand it as: don’t let anyone else or anything obstruct our view of one another. We need to keep a clear line of sight with God’s face so that we see everything else clearly. When something else is in the way, our view of God is distorted. We can’t recognize God for who God truly is. Then we are not recognizing, encountering and honoring one another as clearly as we should be.
When our view of God is distorted or foggy or blocked, it affects everything else. Our whole lives get foggy, our relationships are not as healthy, caring, supportive, and loving as they could be. It affects the way we look at the world, the way we see ourselves and the way we see others. Look at the potential ripple effect of putting other gods in front of God’s face: perhaps it is our focus on our appearance. When that becomes all-consuming, we plan our activities and our interactions with others based on what we see or don’t see in the mirror. We miss cues pointing to the needs of others, we make up lies about why we can’t do this or do that, all because we are too concerned about our appearance—whether it is the clothes we wear or the hair we were born with or our current body shape. We get envious of others who look the way we want to look, and pretty soon more than one tent pole is getting wobbly.
Or maybe it is our bank account that we put between us and God. It is not whether it is full or empty, but the way we focus on it that causes the problem. We put our need to fill it or spend it or borrow from others first, causing us to ignore our relationships with the people who love us. Or it is the phone or the tv or other device that blocks our view of God. This past week a little boy told me, with a big smile on his face, that it had been electronic device day at school! He and his classmates were allowed to bring their devices to class. I guess it is the new form of “show and tell”, showing off your toys to your classmates. I groaned inwardly, lamenting the fact that our culture continues to lift up electronic devices as gods, even reinforcing it in elementary school.
Everything that we put in between us and God affects the way we relate to the rest of those we share the tent with. The more gods we have, the more we are pulled away from a singular focus on the God who has called us into relationship, who provides a way for our salvation through Jesus Christ, who continues to walk with us daily. This command, like the other 9, is a gift to us, a provision from a God who loves us and wants us to live in healthy balance on this good earth. When we can keep our primary focus on God, the way we look at others comes into in a healthy focus, and we naturally will have a harder time stealing, lying or cheating on a spouse. We don’t forget to take Sabbath rest or wish we had what our neighbor has. The big ten are interdependent.
When we obey the big ten, we are not simply being law abiding citizens. We are expressing gratitude to God for God’s gift of salvation in Jesus Christ, the covering of grace over the big tent poles. Obeying them does not earn salvation, but expresses it. Obeying them is almost never the easy path. We are much more prone to going in the opposite direction. Yet obeying them is the way to live in community with one another. Thanks be to God that we have one another for support, correction, reminders and companionship as we wander in the wilderness of life. Amen.