A rabbi was asked if it bothered him that Christians had taken the Ten Commandments from the Jews. “I don’t mind that they took them,” he said, “I just hope they can keep them.”
We can try to understand the Ten Commandments as a list of rules we must follow, similar to the traffic laws of Medford, or the legal code of Oregon. Often I read of people who want to display the Ten Commandment in court rooms because they are a historical example of an ancient legal code.
But I think they are more than that. Yes, they have historical value that way, and yes there is a strong sense that they represent legal norms, but they are much more than that. To think of the Ten Commandments as merely a divine legal code is to demean the overall importance of their meaning.
In Hebrew they are actually called the Ten Sayings, and the first saying is not, Thou shalt have no other gods before me. The first is, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.”
I can see how some people think of them as a legal code. In the history of our country there has been people, and there still are people who believe the Ten Commandments are the basis for all legal matters, and should be the law of the land. True, some of them, like thou shalt not steal, or thou shalt not kill, look a lot like a legal code. Every society that has ever had a legal code has included those two laws in it.
Some of the commandments are well suited for universal laws. Even though the still represent a covenant between us and God and each other, they still work in terms of a legal code. Thou shalt not kill comes to mind. Thou shalt not steal. These are more than just good ideas. In almost every society that has ever existed, these have been the law.
Do you remember what you felt when you first heard about Las Vegas? I felt like an essential covenant had been broken. At very least we have the expectation that we will not randomly kill our fellow citizens—or anyone for that matter. That was broken that day as a man tried to see how many people he could kill.
If you have ever had someone break into your house or car and steal things, what you might feel is more than just sadness at the loss of your material things. Many people feel violated. We know we are not supposed to do that. It is an promise we have with each other as fellow human beings.
The prohibition against bearing false witness is also important, and works in a legal sense. We have a crime called perjury, and it is an important thing to remember.
How many of you have heard of the Spanish Inquisition? How about the French Inquisition? The Italian Inquisition? The German Inquisition? The English Inquisition?
I realize that the idea of an English Inquisition boggles the mind, but these all existed. There were French and German and Italian and even English Inquisitions. But the Spanish Inquisition is the one we think about. Why?
Well in the Spanish Inquisition, they added a little something to the mix. If you accused your neighbor of heresy, and they were eventually convicted, you got all their property. That started out as an incentive to get people to turn in heretics. But it went horribly wrong. It turned neighbor against neighbor. If your neighbor had a nicer house than yours, or a nicer horse, or had a lot of earthly goods, all you had to do to get their stuff was say to a local authority, “I think I saw my neighbor say a curse, then turn around and spit three times. They may be a heretic.” The inquisition comes and arrests your neighbor, they torture them until they confessed, which is usually what happened, and then you walk off with a nice new house.
There ought to be a law against telling lies about your neighbor, especially when it does him great harm. Ironically in Spain, it was the Church itself who instituted a policy that made it advantageous to tell lies about your neighbor.
Other parts of the commandments, well are a bit more questionable. For instance, how many of you remember Blue Laws? In order to help keep the Sabbath holy, shops were forbidden from selling certain items on a Sunday. I remember once trying to buy model glue on a Sunday, only to find out they could not sell it to be because of the Blue Laws. I guess someone thought building model airplanes on a Sunday was not properly honoring the Sabbath.
And others are almost impossible to enforce. How does a government enforce something like, Thou shalt not covet? I mean, if you think about it, most ads are based on getting you to covet something—whether they are selling cars or breakfast cereals, most ads are aimed at getting you to want something you don’t have. So you would have to eliminate all advertising, but then are we going to have Thought Police who wander around neighbors, and arrest people for looking too longingly at their neighbors green lawn. Sir, it looks like you are coveting your neighbor’s nice green lawn. I’m afraid you are under arrest.”
If we cannot do that, how are we going to enforce something like having no other gods, or taking God’s name in vain? Does anyone want people thrown into jail because they thought more highly of their country, or of football than they do God?
So if the Ten Commandments are not really meant to be the basis for a society’s legal code, what are they meant to be?
At a conference of rabbis held just after Jerusalem was sacked by the Romans, and the Jews realized that they were no longer people of the land, no longer a people of the Temple, but now were people of the book, they started a discussion on the Old Testament that actually is still going on today. Since their faith would now revolve around the book and not the land or the Temple, they had long discussions on how to interpret the various books of the Bible. They debated what should go in their Bible.
When they were debating the section that contained the Ten Commandments, they got hung on a phrase. It says, when Moses went up on the Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments, the mountain hovered over the people. The rabbis took that literally, believing that the mountain lifted up, and actually hovered over the people. Why did it do that, the rabbis asked. One person said it was to show the power of God. One person said it was so that if the people rejected the law, God would bring the mountain down on them, and kill them. Finally one rabbi said, “The mountain was a marriage canopy. The law is the vows we give to God, and which God gives to us.” And that was the interpretation that won the day.
The commandments are vows that we make to cement our relationship with God and with each other. It is a covenant promise we make to God and to each other. The first part of the commandments pertains to how we treat God. The second part, how we treat each other. The Ten Commandments show us ten ways we can love God and love our neighbor.
There is a communal aspect to them. The Ten Commandments, and the rest of the Hebrew law for that matter, was given to a community of people. The intent was for that community to show the world who God was, and what the people of God are supposed to look like. They were designed to show the world how to love God and how to love our neighbor. If we are serious about the Ten Commandments, and as Christians I believe we should be, we should be serious about helping others keep them. But not in a legal way. The way to help others keep the commandments is NOT to turn them into some kind of secular law with penalties if you break the law. That is the not the way of love.
We do it differently. Many years ago I was helping my Dad move, and I opened up a closet and found a .22 rifle. “When did you get a gun?” I asked him. As far as I knew, my father never owned a gun before. “Oh, that,” he said. “I had almost forgotten about that.” He was in a convenience store one night, and this kid came in with the rifle. He pointed it at the clerk and said, “I need you to give me the money in your till. I don’t want to do this, sir, but I have to feed my family.” Dad looked at him, and saw he was more scared than the clerk, and he said to the kid, “How much do you want for the gun?” He gave the kid $75 and the kid gave him the rifle, and one of the commandments was not broken that night. My father helped him keep the commandment about not stealing.
If we are serious about these as a community of faith—not as a civil community, but as a community of faith—we will help each other keep them. So we won’t pass laws to make it illegal to shop or eat out on the Sabbath, but we will act in such a way that helps others keep the Sabbath. We don’t pass laws making it illegal to covet, but we look at what and how we desire things, and live that out. We don’t pass laws about taking God’s name in vain, but live a life that shows the love of God, and makes people want to honor God. Like most other societies we might pass laws against stealing and killing and bearing false witness but we also live in such a way that other people can easily keep them. When we create inequalities in society, and structures that keep people impoverished, we are not exactly making it easy for them to keep the commandment about stealing.
Jesus was asked, “What is the greatest commandment?” and he said, “Love God and love your neighbor.” The Ten Commandments are ten ways we can show our love for God and for our neighbor. We take them seriously, not as law, but as guidelines for love. Against these there is not law.
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20
1Then God spoke all these words: 2I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 3you shall have no other gods before me.
4You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.
7You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.
8Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9Six days you shall labor and do all your work.
12Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.
13You shall not murder.
14You shall not commit adultery.
15You shall not steal.
16You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
17You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.
18When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance, 19and said to Moses, “;You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.” 20Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin.”
33“Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. 34When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. 35But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. 36Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. 37Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ 38But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’ 39So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. 40Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” 41They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”
42Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’? 43Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. 44The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.”
45When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. 46They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.