An Open Table where Love knows no borders

Ten Vital Signs of Life

A sermon on Exodus 20: 1-20 by Nathan Nettleton

The Ten Commandments are one of the few parts of the Bible that almost everybody has heard of. I nearly said that they were the best known, but that would imply that people were familiar with the content and perhaps even understood it, and that is clearly not the case. Probably even most of us here would struggle to correctly list all ten. But it would certainly be rare to find anyone who hadn’t heard of them in any part of the world where Christianity, Judaism or Islam have had a significant presence and influence. These three great religious traditions have all seen the Ten Commandments as being one of the most foundational expressions of what it means to live an ethical life before God and among God’s people. But the content is not nearly as well known as might be expected, and what role that content might be expected to play in our lives today is certainly a cause of much confusion and argument.

Of course, there are plenty of people who think it is all perfectly simple — the commandments are to be understood as the basic laws of society, and if people don’t obey them, they are to be punished accordingly. Well that might be all well and good if all the commandments were things like “do not commit murder” and “do not steal”. But how on earth could we ever police things like whether someone “remembers” the Sabbath, or desires something that belongs to a neighbour, or even perhaps has an extra god or two to whom they give worship in the recesses of their minds? These are not things that can be policed or judged by the courts in order to impose proportional punishments. And they were probably not seen that way in Biblical times either. In fact, they are only ever once referred to in the Bible as commandments (Exodus 34). Normally the Bible calls them “the Ten Words”. Jesus, of course, is called “the Word”, so the implication is that the “ten words” are somehow the same sort of thing that Jesus is: a self-revelation of God’s love and merciful desire to lead us all into the fullness of life.

The purpose of the Ten Words, then, is not really to give us a kind of moral check list by which we grimly police our own behaviour. Nor is it primarily about defining the pathways of a respectable life that will ensure an orderly society and escape the disapproval of a demanding and pedantic divine judge. And certainly the purpose is not to provide a starting point for a legal code to be enforced in the law courts. Though non of those things is entirely wrong or entirely without merit, the purpose of the Ten Words is much more about introducing us to the God of life and freedom and transforming our hearts and minds in God’s image by drawing us into the stories of God’s people and into the lively conversation about how God’s passion for life is expressed in the concrete and often messy circumstances of our lives and our world.

It is, of course, impossible to unpack the Ten Words in detail in one short sermon, or even in a long one, so I’m only going to look at a few bits here tonight. But what I want to do is explore the ways they had very specific meanings and intentions in their original context, and thus to see how we might learn to find the specific ways they relate to our context instead of trying to reduce them to a kind of thoroughly generic set of universal principles. Because after all, if you treat them simply as universal principles, they are pretty unremarkable. They almost become mere motherhood statements. Who’s going to argue about whether we’d be better off if we all stopped killing, stealing and telling lies? Nothing new there. But at that level, they don’t help us much to sort out why the adherents of all three of the great religions that express allegiance to the Ten Words are often more worried about killing unborn babies than they are about bombing the neighbourhoods into which other babies are being born, or whether buying cheap clothes made by underpaid or slave labour might not violate several of the commandments — stealing, sabbath keeping, and honouring the God who releases slaves — or whether creative tax minimisation should be considered good business practice or stealing and bearing false witness. Broad general principles and motherhood statements seldom get us very far along the pathway of life or through the ethical mazes we inevitably face. But if we can see the Ten Words as the invitations to life extended to a specific people in a specific context, then we can begin to see how they beckon us towards fullness of life in our contexts.

The first of the Ten Words, when heard in its biblical wording and context immediately demands that we pay attention to the specific life situation into which it was given. The difficulty for us, and one of the reasons that these Ten Words are so often heard as bland universal principles, is that if we are familiar with the wording at all, it is not usually the biblical wording, but the liturgical wording that comes from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer and is reproduced on ornamental plaques and posters and the like. The liturgical version says, “You shall have no other gods but me.” Pretty general. But the biblical version says, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.” That’s pretty different isn’t it? Now we are dealing with a God who has a resume and who has been revealed in a very specific and, at the time, recent act of liberation. We have a God who gives a reason why “you shall have no other Gods before me,” and the reason is that “I am the one who did this for you, and if I hadn’t done this, you’d still be subjected to slavery.”

The main focus of the first of the Ten Words then is not on something that we shouldn’t do. It is on who God is and how God relates to us. It is on the content of God’s agenda and God’s resume. And it is connecting us in to the story of a specific group of God’s people at a specific moment in their history, and saying that this story is also our story and that this God is also our God and for the same reasons. When we want to broaden it out to see how it speaks to us in a different place and time, we don’t begin by simply stripping off the specific narrative details so that we are just left with “You shall have no other gods but me.” Instead we recognise that the importance of these major stories is that they reveal the way God continues to act over and over, and so these stories become our stories because God continues to act in the same sorts of ways in the midst of our lives and our historical contexts. So what having no other God but this God looks like in our context begins with recognising how we have been enslaved and how God has been acting to set us free. And that’s hugely important when it comes to understanding the Ten Words as a whole, because one of the ways that many many people have been enslaved is by legalistic and moralistic approaches to religion that portray God as a fearful punisher who is watching your every move looking for mistakes. So much of what Jesus was on about was showing us how wrong that view of God is and setting us free from slavery to such gods so that we might know ourselves beloved by the God who is thoroughly compassionate and merciful and who leads us out of slavery and into the wide open spaces of love and fullness of life.

The importance of the same original context of the escape from slavery is at least as apparent when we come to the fourth of the Ten Words, the Word about remembering the Sabbath.

By the way, if you grab a book on the Ten Words, you may find that the Sabbath one is listed as either the fourth or the third. This is because, as well known as the Ten Words are, we are not even all agreed on how to number them. The sentence structuring allows them to be read as eleven commandments, and the scholars disagree on whether it is the first two that should be grouped as one, or the last two.

So whether it is the third or the fourth, the Word on Sabbath-keeping has a pretty specific meaning in the context of the Hebrew people’s escape from slavery. Once again, the liturgical version obscures this, and in fact so did the editing of the passage as set in the lectionary for today’s reading. The liturgical version cuts the 89 words of the full English translation to just eight: “Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy.”

Not much context or background there. The lectionary version added another ten words, “Six days you shall labor and do all your work” which gets specific about the implications for work, but doesn’t give us a lot more background. But either of the two biblical versions gives us a whole lot more. Interestingly, they go in slightly different directions, although the final impact is pretty similar. In the Exodus version that we heard, the missing 71 words say, “But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.”

The Deuteronomy version says exactly the same things about nobody working, not even slaves, animals or foreigners, but it adds, “so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you,” and when it gets to the reasons, instead of the reference to the creation story, it says, “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.”

So the Deuteronomy version spells out that the context for observing the Sabbath is the liberation from slavery, and although the Exodus version instead invokes the story of creation, it locates the giving of the Ten Words in the immediate aftermath of the escape, so the implication is that this principle which can be drawn from creation is seen being expressed in a specific way in the liberation from slavery, and is now to be observed by everyone, not only as rest for themselves, but as rest for those they normally require to work for them; as rest that for at least a day a week sets the slaves free to be the equals of the leisured class. Because in Egypt you were being forced to make bricks, 24/7, and whenever you spoke of a desire for freedom, your labour was made harder and harder, and the slave-driven economy ground on more and more keeping even the slave-drivers and Pharaoh himself enslaved to its anxious need for constant productivity. But now you are are being set free, and now you can demonstrate your freedom by regularly taking your hands off the wheel and relaxing and experiencing the freedom of knowing that the world can get on perfectly well and still provide for us all without needing us to enslave ourselves again to the 24/7 workaholic grind.

I hope you can see what a huge difference that makes to the way this and the rest of the Ten Words are heard. If all you have is “thou shalt not do any work on the Sabbath”, then the Sabbath can become a burden, an oppressive weight that renders a day a week joyless and a bit fearful in case we accidentally do something that we shouldn’t have done. But if you have been feeling trapped in the endless cycles of the wage-slave culture, or trapped in trying to raise a family and maintain a household with little or no support and an endless backlog of chores, then this Word is an invitation to an unimagined freedom. It is a promise that God is not a workaholic. God was quite able to enjoy what had been accomplished in six days and sit back and rest without feeling the need to keep giving orders, exercising control, and producing more. And this restful and non-anxious God invites us into the same freedom and the same restfulness. No wonder we are called to worship no other God than the God who sets us free, free from incessant overwork, from anxiety and from fear, and who leads us into the wide open spaces of love and freedom and rest. Jesus too said, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”

I hope you can see from these examples then that the better way to approach the Ten Words is not by stripping them of their original context to make them somehow more universal. Rather it is to identify the ways that the original context parallels the situations that we find ourselves in, so that we can identify how God’s Words to that context might have not identical but parallel applications in our context. This way the Ten Words become, not ten more burdens to labour under, but ten invitations into the gracious culture of God and ten vital signs of life in all its fullness.


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