A sermon on Genesis 20:1-17 by Alison Sampson
I don’t know about you, but a big part of my identity is that I am someone who can’t stand being told what to do. If I’m told to do something, then because I’ve learned a modicum of politeness I’ll grit my teeth and nod; and because for years now I’ve been training myself to slow down, listen and learn, I might even do it; but underneath my blood will be boiling and I’ll be longing to do the opposite.
That’s exactly how I feel when I hear the commandments blasted from the rooftops. As a teenager I lived in the United States, and not a week went by that one public figure or another didn’t call for the reintroduction of the commandments into schools, into courthouses, even into law. I gather that such calls are even more strident now. But whenever I hear such calls, my blood runs cold, and I immediately want to rush out and bed somebody else’s husband in a trivialising manner; go steal a car; and take up a job on Sundays – I figure, ministry is always an option.
It’s particularly contrary of me as I don’t actually object to the content of the commandments. It seems clear to me that if we could all follow them, especially the first and last – both matters of the heart – then the world would be a better place. No violence, no envy, no murder, no bloodlust, no workaholism, no false idols, no broken hearts and a world worshipping a loving God.
The thing is, though, that the commandments aren’t a general law to be laid down upon every society. They were a set of guidelines for God’s chosen people, established through a loving covenant. Suggesting that the commandments are a blanket set of laws with universal application overlooks the relationship in which they were first established, particularly as our societies these days are so patently pluralistic.
It also ignores the sheer idiocy of trying to mandate them. While it’s easy enough to set down laws that no one shall kill or rape or steal, even if such laws can be difficult to enforce, how exactly do we mandate faith in God? And how do we mandate control of desires? You will notice that the last commandment is not about actions but merely about what we desire: ‘Do not want anything that belongs to someone else.’ I find myself wondering how on earth anyone expects the state to control and punish us for wanting the wrong things?
Clearly, the state cannot, although many have certainly tried. But the sheer impossibility of the task raises the question of why desire is even mentioned; and so it is worth some investigation.
I suggest that the commandment is there because if we desired nothing of anyone else’s, then most of the other commandments would be pretty much sorted. Without desire there is no dissatisfaction with one’s lot, no rivalry, and therefore no impulse to engage in trivialising relationships, theft, lies or murder.
Sadly, these desires cannot be completely controlled. We are human. Like it or not, we compare ourselves to others and desire what our role models sport. Whether it’s a pretty piece of flesh or public acclaim or more material wealth – the bigger house, car or gadget – we find ourselves longing for it too.
Personally, one of the things I most often find myself wanting is professional success. There are times when my husband appears very busy very important, and I envy that. Meanwhile I have friends and acquaintances who have written good books, and I envy them, too.
But envy is a nasty beast. Instead of being delighted for these people and happy that they are doing such work, I can begin to dislike them. I can feel small and mean. I can imagine wanting to see them take a public fall, bringing them down to my small scale – and this, perhaps, is exactly what the final commandment is all about. ‘Do not desire what others have’ – because it brings out the worst in you. The most demoralising part of it is that, even as I’m experiencing envy, I can see just how awful I am being: selfish, narcissistic, life-sucking.
Now, the reason I haven’t written any books is a matter of faith. While I may have been called to write, I have also been called to do lots of other things. I was called to have children, called to stay home with them, called to read with refugees, called to learn theology, called to be a part of the school community, called to care for half a dozen other children over the years, and called to many other small tasks and relationships. In other words, I haven’t felt called to write a big book or be a big writer; instead, I have been called to love in whatever manifestation is required on a particular day at that particular hour.
Like all Christians, then, my fundamental calling is no more and no less than to follow Jesus and walk the path of love. Everything else is peripheral.
The frustrating thing is, I know this. Promising to follow the Way was a major part of my baptism – but I also forget, time and again. And it is when I forget that I find myself wishing that I had written a book, or had a job title, or somehow or other looked very busy very important too.
Yet if I can just embrace that fundamental calling to love, and if I can get it into my head that I am not called to follow anyone else’s path, then I can stop glancing over my shoulder and comparing my endeavours with everyone else’s. From time to time, in awe-inspiring flashes, I do get it; and when I do, my heart is buoyed up by an irrepressible joy and all my other desires evaporate into thin air.
When those desires dissipate, I am radiantly happy and at peace. I know deep in my bones that I have everything I need; more than enough; and there is nothing I want other than to walk the earth in love. At those times, of course, I envy no one and desire nothing; and I feel completely free.
Jesus said, ‘I came not to abolish the law, but to fulfil it’. He did this by becoming the New Human, modelling a way of life that was marked by love, justice, mercy, peace and self-sacrifice. As part of our baptism, we are called to imitate him, just as he imitated his Father in heaven – and if we adopt him and not the Joneses as our role model, then over time we will begin to display his qualities. Gradually, our desires will be limited no longer by our mundane human imaginations, which are so captivated by material wealth, popularity or success. Instead, our desires will be shaped by the coming reign of God.
When this happens, our other desires will be revealed in all their pettiness. When love is the priority, suddenly someone else’s stuff, whether their husband or their house, their plasma television or their perfect children, their intellect or their career path or their attractiveness, all become somewhat laughable as objects of desire. Any satisfaction they promise is revealed to be illusion, for we will understand that love is the only way. Any attempts to obtain that which belongs to someone else will only get in the way of love, and we are no longer willing to limit love because we know it is the only thing that will catapult us into joy.
And that brings us back to the good Christians souls who would like to see the commandments enacted as law. I am not one of them. In the freedom which Jesus gives us, the commandments cannot be imposed. They are not the beginning point; they are what result when people have learned to love and their desires have merged with God’s.
Jesus said, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’ and ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’
Thanks to Jesus, these are the only two commandments we need. Even better, in them we find our primary identity as followers on a Way marked by peace and mercy, justice and love.