Last week the apostle Paul suggested that we “work out our own salvation, with fear and trembling.” And this week, we stand with the people of Israel, as God suggests rules to live by. And how do the people feel? Excited to be starting a new life? Peeved that there are new strictures to their freedom? Exodus tells us “they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance…” Fear and Trembling. Being in the presence of God.
I have to admit that I come to preaching on the 10 commandments with my own fear and trembling. These commandments, these rules, are well known. They have been used as the ideal (I think this is the reason that some courthouses put them in a place of prominence). They have also been used as a hammer
—not always fairly or the same with everyone (and I think this may be the reason some have sought to remove them from our justice courts). It is daunting to say something about these decrees from on high. But I share some musings, and invite you to spend some time with this code of conduct as well. To help us I invite you to turn to page 36 in your hymnbooks where there is a shortened form of Exodus 20.
Let’s imagine the scene. We are the former slaves of Egypt. We have escaped from our captors, fled into the wilderness, and have been wandering around, complaining mostly about this not being as great an adventure as we thought, and maybe we shouldn’t have left the confines of life as we used to know it. God has been both leading us (pillar of cloud) and protecting us (pillar of fire) and feeding us (manna and quail) and speaking to us (through Moses). We used to be a community because we shared oppression, we shared despising our captors and overseers. What makes us a community now? And how do we govern ourselves? The 10 commandments are a reflection of how the community is to act, how we are to show our respect for one another, and, of course, our love for God.
Some commentators suggest that the original list was just single words. What would those single words be? Some commandments are easy to shrink—like Murder, or Adultery. But how do you put “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house, or wife, or anything that belongs to your neighbor” into one word? Would it be Covet? In some ways, that is both wider and narrower than what we now have. And I find it very interesting that what we have in the front of our hymnbook leaves out comments like “for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.”
I always wondered how all that would have fit on those tablets Moses brought down from Sinai. I invite you to find your own shorthand—what 10 words would you use?!
As we head toward the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation, I was glad to have the voice of Martin Luther across the ages. Luther felt the 10 commandments should be wrestled with, not just memorized. He also felt that sometimes we focus on the wrong thing. Take “You shall not murder” for instance. Most of us would be able to say, “Yup, I haven’t done that, check.” Not so fast, says Luther. For every negative implies a positive. You shall not murder implies You SHALL support life. Can we all say we have checked that box and move on?
I am amazed at how easily Luther played with the exact wording of commandments. Take for instance the one on Sabbath (either commandment 3 or 4 depending on how you are counting). Luther didn’t feel this applied to Christians literally! For everyone worked on Saturday (and it didn’t help to transfer the “holy” day to Sunday). Luther felt “God’s Word makes every day holy, so what is all the fuss about Saturday or Sunday?” (Luther, The Large Catechism, The Book of Concord)
But this doesn’t mean that Sabbath isn’t important. By no means! In fact, Luther uses this commandment to urge that everyone (especially laborers) should have a day off! Moreover, Luther thinks that for Christians, this Sabbath is a time not only to rest tired bodies, but to give time to “rest in God’s Word.” Luther gives us the permission to reimagine what these holy meditations mean for us today.
For the 10 commandments are a window into the relationship between God and humans. They are the written legacy of the first group encounter with God. (That consonant after consonant after consonant from last week’s poem). Before this God appeared to individuals—to Abraham, to Joseph, to Moses. But now, God has chosen to be in relationship with a group of people. The glory of the Divine is revealed to humanity. And humanity will never be the same.
I love a Midrash, a story arising from the Bible, shared by Rabbi Adam Morris called “Why Sinai?”
When the Holy One was determining upon which mountain the fullness of the divine glory would be revealed to humanity, all of the mountains lined up to petition for the right to be the place at which such an encounter would happen.
Mt. Tabor rushed to the front of the line to extol the virtues of its size, grandeur, and the beauty that a human could encounter in such a setting. Mt. Carmel elbowed its way ahead of Tabor, praising the lushness of its greenery and the bounty of its harvest. The mountains all scurried to make their case before the Holy One, with little, nondescript Sinai getting lost in the shuffle to compete and promote. Sinai lacked any spectacular views, awe-inspiring size, or lush vegetation and yet, it was Sinai that was chosen to be the place in which divinity and humanity would connect.
Perhaps we learn from the story of Sinai that such encounters between humanity and divinity need not be tied to the most or the greatest or even the most prolific among us. Those are stumbling blocks to encountering the divine. Sinai never knew the things that obscure the divine presence in our world. Sinai stands as an example of the prime importance of sincerity of heart. Is it any wonder the Holy One chose to be revealed on Mt. Sinai’s slopes?
I think we sometimes forget the fear and trembling of being so close to God. We take the words of life, given on that little, non-descript mountain, and make out of them a check-list. Or worse yet, we ignore them altogether.
Jesus famously said that he did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it (Matt. 5:17). And we see Jesus making his own commentary on the 10 commandments when he summarizes the law in Matthew. He is asked a question by a lawyer, to test him, Matthew says. “Which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Pick one, and in so doing you will get in a world of trouble.
So Jesus did a very smart thing. He took words from Deuteronomy (words that already summarize the law, and that everyone would have known by heart) and he proclaimed, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” (Acknowledging that our relationship to God is first and foremost). But he doesn’t stop there. For the 10 commandments have a dual focus. Our relationship to God. And our relationship to one another.
So Jesus adds a second greatest commandment, this time with familiar words from the book of Leviticus, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” It is sometimes called the Vertical and the Horizontal. God and Humans. But I notice that Jesus has pulled two quotes from the Torah that emphasis one thing—love.
And I will bet that is not usually the word that comes to mind when we think about the 10 commandments. If we had to come up with one defining phrase it might be SHALL or SHALL NOT. But Jesus goes to the heart of the matter. LOVE. All the rest of it is just description.
In Jesus’ mind, what happened on that isolated mountain so many years ago was God inviting us into a relationship of love, and urging us to show love in return. That is the bottom line. As Jesus put it “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
No wonder we find ourselves feeling fear and trembling. LOVE. It is so simple. It is so impossible. It is so encompassing. It is who God is, and who we are called to be.
May it be so. Alleluia, Amen.