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A post-homiletical discourse delivered by the Rev. Dr. James R. Beebe

Rector, St. Patrick’s Church, Incline Village, Nevada, October 2, 2011

Text:  Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20 – “Then God spoke all these words….”



     Lately, it hurts whenever I do this.  You’re response is supposed to be, “Well, don’t DO that!”  Exactly.


     Well, maybe easier said than done.  In the book of Exodus, God has ten words for His people.  They are familiar words, to be sure, and many people know them by heart.  We call them, “the Ten Commandments.”  But that’s only because redactors have cleaned them up from their original Hebrew.  Most scholars now agree that they were given in such a form that they could be memorized.


     Instead of a long, flowing form, they were originally just one word each, an imperative preceded by a negative prefix of one syllable.  So they were more like, “No-kill,” “No-steal,” “No-lie,” and so forth.  [Thomas Cahill]  In this way, the originals would have been easily memorized by even the simplest and most ignorant nomad, his ten fingers being a constant reminder.


     Since then, people have parsed the Ten Words in different sorts of ways.  (By the way, “parsing”  is simply analyzing a sentence in terms of grammatical constituents, identifying the parts of speech, and syntactic relations).  Let’s have a go at it:


1.     “You shall have no other gods before me.”  So most of us think to ourselves, “Well, I don’t worship Satan or attend Hindu services, so I must be OK on this one.”  But there are lots of other things we make into gods out there – sports teams, our children, our career, our democratic ideals.  Have you noticed that people don’t get too worked up about Jesus’ radical demands, but the phrases, “Tea Party” and “Liberal Left” evoke an almost apoplectic response?  That’s because people substitute political platforms for God.  [Walter Harrelson]  Maybe this commandment should read: “Do not have more than a single ultimate allegiance.”


2.     “You shall not make for yourself an idol.”  It is called, “spiritual settling,” a settling for something that is less than the divine, but seen as divine.  If your fundamental of fundamentals is belief in the verbal, plenary inspiration of scripture, guess what – you’ve just substituted the Bible for God.  Your bad. 

Maybe this commandment should read:  Do not give ultimate loyalty to any earthly reality.”


3.     “You shall not make wrongful use of the name of your God.”  So most of think to ourselves, “Well, I don’t curse, so I’m covered on this one, too.”  But there are lots of other ways of taking of the name of God in vain – praying for what we want as if it were God’s will is a common.  Or using religion to divide and exclude.  Maybe it should read:  Do not use the power of religion to harm others.”


4.     “Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.”  We tend to treat this one as if God would be dishonored if we didn’t keep the Sabbath.  But Jesus reminded us that the Sabbath is there for us and our welfare.  So working ourselves to death is bad for ourselves, our families and our mission.  It should probably read:  “Do not treat with contempt the times set aside for rest.”


5.     “Honor your father and your mother.”  This doesn’t mean that, as an adult, you have to kowtow to the every whim of your parents.  But it does mean honoring their wishes regarding their own lives, especially towards the end of them.  Things like honoring their living wills and honoring the spirit and intent of their last will and testament instead of fighting over the proceeds would apply.  How about this:  “Do not treat with contempt members of the family.”


6.     “You shall not murder.”  So most of us think to ourselves, “Well, I haven’t murdered anybody, so I’m covered on this one, too.”  But murder can be more subtle than physically terminating someone’s life.  It could mean libel and character assassination and harboring a grudge, too.  How about, instead, we say: “Do not do violence to other human beings.”


7.     “You shall not commit adultery.”  So most of us think to ourselves, “Well, I haven’t had an affair, so I haven’t broken this one, either.”  But remember, Jesus said that harboring lust in your heart amounts to the same think.  “Harboring” means “entertaining,” which means a continual thought.  A simple: “Do not violate the commitment of sexual love” would cover it.


8.     “You shall not steal.”  Everybody violates this one – anything from using company time for personal ends to wasteful business junkets to insider trading.  Stealing could mean taking someone else’s identity; it could mean dissing a fellow worker to get a promotion.  How about we say:  “Do not claim the life or goods of others.”


9.     “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.”  This has a wider application than perjuring yourself in the courtroom.  It means engaging in gossip, even if the intent is not malicious.  It means spreading rumors because they’re fun, not because they’re true.  It means triangulating – complaining to a third party because it would be too emotionally painful to talk to the person directly involved.  In other words:  “Do not damage others through misuse of speech.”


10.   “You shall not covet.”  This prohibits envy, of course.  Envy entails keeping up with the Joneses.  It means wanting something someone else has because you see life as basically competitive.  It means ascribing to the maxim, “He who dies with the most toys, wins.”   Let’s keep in mind a new way of putting it:  “Do not lust after the life or goods of others.”


     Christians after Martin Luther have almost universally seen the Ten Commandments as something that belongs to the “Old Covenant.”  Something that has been superseded by Christianity.  After all, faith in Jesus is the only thing you need, right?  You don’t need to obey a bunch of commandments any more to be saved.


     But that’s a serious misreading of Israel’s covenant with God.  It wasn’t by the obedience to commandments or teachings that made Jews “right with God.”  Faithfulness to the commandments was not a ticket for entry into the covenant.  God had accepted the Israelites purely through God’s grace.  The teachings were there as a badge of membership in that Kingdom.  Jews were Jews; therefore, they make a good faith effort to embody the teachings.


      We would be well-served to see the Ten Commandments as being in harmony with the teachings of Jesus.  When asked about this very thing, Jesus summarized the Ten Commandments – and all other of the 613 commandments – as loving the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your body, and with all your mind.  And loving your neighbor as yourself. 


     This summary is advantageous for a couple of reasons.  First, they are positive statements instead of prohibitions.  And the second reason?  Simple, really:


you only need two fingers….