You shall not bow down to them or serve them, 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 Exodus 20:5
I am not sure if I ever came into contact with the 10 Commandments in church as a child. However, I do distinctly remember encountering them in religious education at the Catholic School I attended from kindergarten through 4th grade. What I heard was that if we broke even one of these commandments, we were guilty of committing a mortal sin and committing a mortal sin would send us to hell. Unlike our reading for this morning, the version presented in my elementary religion classes contained all the words, including those about God being a jealous God and punishing the children of those who committed iniquities to the third or fourth generation. It scared the living daylights out of me, and out of fear I tried as hard as I could not to break any.
As I transitioned into adulthood, I was fortunate to have people in my life who gave me a different image of God, an image of love and care. I hadn’t completely shed the image of an angry and jealous God, but I was working on it. However, I still didn’t know what to do with the idea of God being jealous or punishing the children of sinners to the third or fourth generations. It became easier to ignore the Ten Commandments and to focus instead on the Gospels and Jesus’ focus on the two great commandments: Loving God and loving my neighbor as myself. It didn’t dawn on me that the two great commandments are really a summary of the Ten Commandments as they explain how we are to love God and our neighbor. Nor did it occur to me that perhaps the Ten Commandments were also given by a loving God because this loving God understood the kinds of boundaries and limitations human beings need to live a healthy and good life. I had been ordained for ten years, before I came to this latter understanding of these commandments. I think I needed to get out of my twenties to understand that boundaries and limits are a good thing.
So, what got me there? Well, maturity and Godly Play did. Godly Play is a story-based method for teaching the Christian faith to children (and apparently adults) that is based on Maria Montessori’s educational methods. In Godly Play, the Ten Commandments are called the Ten Best Ways. They are the Ten Best Ways because, when followed, they lead to good and healthy relationships between people and between people and God which lead to good and healthy communities. There are “no’s” in the commandments but the “no’s” are only there so we can say “yes” to what brings us true happiness, health and wholeness. And God gave them to us because God loves us and wants us to be happy, healthy and whole. When I first heard this Godly Play story being told I was like Paul and the scales fell from my eyes. The image of God as punitive and angry that had been planted in my brain so many years ago was ripped up and tossed aside, allowing more room for the image of God as loving and caring. Maybe these commandments were not meant to keep us from enjoying life, but instead were meant to help us to enjoy our lives to the fullest. Let me explain what I mean.
The Commandments were not given to humans in a vacuum. They were given to a particular people who lived in a particular time and place and who had a particular relationship with God. Let’s recall these people for a moment. Do you remember Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel and their son Joseph. God had made a covenant with Abraham and Sarah and their offspring that they would be His people and He would be their God. This covenant continued through the generations that followed and they lived on the land God had given them. But in a time of famine, they had to leave this land to live in Egypt where Joseph’s dreams and actions had protected the Egyptian people from this famine.
As people do, Joseph died, but his offspring didn’t return to their former land. Instead they stayed in Egypt. Eventually there came a Pharoah who had forgotten that the offspring of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob, Rachel, and Joseph were friends of the Egyptians, and this Pharoah enslaved them. For 400 years the generations after Joseph, known as the Israelites, did backbreaking labor for the Egyptian Empire. It looked as though God had broken His covenant with them. They became a people who no longer knew how to be free. Then, without any action on their part to merit it, and through a series of miracles, God heard their cries and led them out of their bondage into freedom. This is where we take up their story in our Old Testament reading for today.
The formerly enslaved people are free. God has promised them a land flowing with milk and honey, but they are not there yet. First God must teach them how to be free. For four hundred years they have not been in charge of themselves. For four hundred years whether they lived or died was in the hands of Pharoah. For four hundred years they had simply sought to survive, and they have. But now God needs to teach them how to thrive. They have forgotten how to be in relationship with one another and with God because for so long thy weren’t free to be fully human.
Freedom is scary if you have never experienced it before. It can be overwhelming and paralyzing. And for those who could overcome those fears, the limitlessness of being in charge of themselves for the first time can be heady and dangerous. Think of those kids you knew in college who went crazy when they found themselves out from under the thumb of their parents’ rules. Many of them couldn’t handle their new-found freedom and didn’t make it through their freshman year.
The Israelites needed to learn how to be a free people. They needed to be formed into the community that God is calling them to be. And God, who loved them so much that he brought them out of slavery, knows this and is forming them into a new community. And so, God is with them for forty years in the desert. It is during these forty years that God gives the people of Israel the Ten Commandments or the Ten Best Ways. In giving these Ten Best Ways to the Israelites God gives them to us too. We and those who came before us may not have spent 400 years in bondage to Pharoah, but we too struggle to handle the freedom given to us by God. Because God is a God of love, and love is only love when it is free and can be chosen, God has given us freedom. We are free to choose to love or not love. We can love God or not. We can love our neighbor or not. God, because God made us, knows what will bring us happiness, health and wholeness, and what will not. Because God loves us, God doesn’t just leave us on our own to figure this out. God gives us these Ten Best Ways too. God is always trying to persuade us to choose love, to choose life, to choose health.
Now, I don’t have time in one sermon to go into each of the Commandments one by one, but I can give you an overview of how they are the Ten Best Ways and how they lead to the best life. I encourage you to do deeper exploration on your own.
The first four best ways are how we are to love God with all our heart, mind and soul. God knows that we will become what we worship. If we worship money, we will become greedy and grasping. If we worship status, we will become vain and driven. If we worship security, we will become fearful. I think you get my point. In Genesis we are told that we humans are made in the image of God. If we are made in God’s image, then we are meant to be as God is. We are meant to love. To be as God is, we must worship God. To worship God and God alone is to place God at the center of our meaning and value. When we use God’s name lightly or wrongly, we are saying God is not the center of our meaning and value. When we lift up God’s name in honor and respect, we value God. God has trusted us with His name, we need to use it in a trustworthy way. In Genesis we are also told that God rested on the seventh day of creation to take in the wonder that surrounded Him. We, who were made in God’s image, need to rest too. We need a day each week in which there is space to worship the one who created us and to simply give thanks that we were made. When we follow these four Best Ways, we find that our life is so ordered that we can enjoy our freedom and the world around us and we find it easier to love our neighbors as ourselves.
With the Fifth Best Way we shift away from our relationship with God to our relationship with our parents. This is a bridge between the commandments that govern our relationship with God and the commandments that govern our relationships with other people. In partnership with our parents, God gave us life. When we reach adulthood, we are to honor our parents who gave us life just as we are to honor God. Now, notice what this commandment doesn’t say. It doesn’t say you are to give blind obedience to your parents even if they are harming you or others. It doesn’t say you are to love your parents. It says you are to honor them. In the circle that is life, we come into the world dependent and if we live to old age, we leave this world dependent. Just as we needed our parents when we were young, they will need us when they are old. They gave us life and we must honor them whether they are worthy of that honor or not. In turn our children are to do the same for us even if we are not worthy of honor either. And in doing this we honor God and learn better how to love our neighbor.
The final Five Best Ways are about how we are to behave toward our neighbors, toward other people. They are not always easy to follow but they are fairly self-explanatory. Don’t murder or betray those with whom you share the deepest intimacy. Don’t take what isn’t yours or say untrue things about other people. Don’t fill yourself with desire for that which belongs to another, for when we compare, we despair. Simple but not easy. However, think for a moment how wonderful life would be if we could all follow these last Five Best Ways. Think how strong a community would be that truly took these final Five Best Ways to heart. Perhaps it would look like God’s kingdom, perhaps such a community would be a glimpse of God’s dream for us.
The Ten Best Ways are laws, and they are commands, and they are also words of love. In these words, we can find judgment, if that is what we want to see, and we can also find personal and communal healing if we wish to find it. We will often fall short of following these Best Ways, but when we do, we will catch a glimpse of the kingdom of God. Amen.