We have almost LOST a sense of the Law of God and its intentions in our society. Even among church folks, few of us could remember more than the two greatest commandments – and some of us may even have forgotten what THOSE are. (Ask me later – it’s okay to ask and helpful to know. ) Even 25 years ago, children memorized the Ten Commandments, but most children AND adults would be hard pressed to remember them today except for either one or two that we don’t think we’ve broken, or the ones that make us mad. That we have even lost most of the sense of God’s Law means that we have lost a sense of our relationship with God, what human liberty is, and how freedom might be lived out in the world. We find that we have lost our moral underpinnings and, far from a sense of shared moral values, there are days when we wonder if the world at large has any morality at all.
Perhaps we can consider the meaning of the Ten Commandments in their own time as a way to determine what they might mean for us today so we can begin to reclaim this “priceless part of the biblical heritage.”[i]
We need a new understanding of God’s law. The Law is a gift – a precious gift that ancient Hebrews inscribed on bits of skin or parchment to sew in their clothes or wear as headbands. This gift offers order, direction and hope.
Instead, to focus on the negatives…the “thou shalt nots” and we resist them. None of us like being told what NOT to do, as if our options are limited by those words. Like an angry toddler, we want to yell that we DON’T WANT PEAS – we want a COOKIE! and yell, “No!” at the top of our lungs at the idea that there is something we MUST NOT do.
That is, however, a limited understanding of the Law. The Law of God was always about the relationship – not the rules. The rules just help keep things in bounds. It makes sense if we consider God like a parent of a teenager. There must be certain rules to protect the teen, right? We don’t tell them not to race cars with friends to spoil their fun – but to keep them safe. We share that driving is a privilege and that obeying the laws and the family’s rules are part of keeping that privilege. Or the commandment to be faithful in our sexual commitments is to protect the relationship – not because God doesn’t get how human beings are – but because, in point of fact, God DOES! God’s LAW asks us to take care of ourselves, of creation, of each other, and of the moral fabric of the community – and not because God likes setting up restrictions, but because living in this way builds community, builds relationships, and helps us live full and healthy lives.
The Law is a gift.
In giving the gift of the law, John Killinger tells us that God essentially says, “I love you. Look what I’ve done for you already. Now I want to give you something wonderful, which will help you to live joyfully and productively in the land I’m going to give you. Here are these sayings. Learn them and live by them. They will bless your lives.”[ii]
In a novel set in Maine called The Country of the Pointed Firs, by Sara Orne Jewett, she describes a writer going up a pathway that leads to the home of a retired sea captain named Elijah Tilley. On her walk up to his house, she notices a number of wooden stakes that seem to appear in random fashion around the property. They are all painted white and trimmed in yellow - - the colors of the Captain’s house. She asked him what they meant and he answered that when he first plowed the ground, his plow got snagged on many large rocks just under the surface. He then placed the stakes where the large rocks were located so that he could avoid them in the future.[iii]
This, says Killinger, is what God has done with the Ten Commandments. God has marked off the places where the rocks are, and said, “These are the trouble spots in life. Avoid these, and you won’t snag your plow.” [iv] The Law is a gift. A precious gift from a loving God to human beings who want to live in relationship with each other and with the Source of all Life.
The Law gives us a different view of life. An alternative path with very different values and vision from those of the culture in which we live. The Law even sets out guidelines for us to tell us how to live so we find joy.
We know the normal expectation of living – our default way of understanding life is to focus on ourselves and forget about God. We get up in the morning and prepare for a work day – knowing that is how we earn money to support our needs -- AND wants. Right? We pick our idol of the moment to worship, and we take care of #1. As Ross Marrs puts it, “All the old gods still prowl among us and win our favor.”
MARS. “We pour out our treasure, and then lay the lives of our young upon the altar of Mars. We build machines of destruction and name them with peaceful names – and we know all the time that, while we may escape war, we may fall victim to a depletion of our resources brought on by our fears, anxieties, and greed… And even though we don’t need them for war, we need them to keep our economic system turning.
BACCHUS. Whether taken from a bottle or as a pill or in a snort of powder, many still seek the comforts, reassurances, and thrills promised by Bacchus, god of the vine. ..” And for every person and agency working to show the destruction of addictions there are many in government or business who encourage this worship because it makes them money.
Mammon. “Mammon reigns supreme in a society that truly does believe that meaning and worth are to be had through many possessions.
Venus and Cupid lurk in every corner and on every street …” often to the destruction of relationships and high emotional costs.
“Minerva dangles the temptation to believe that our own intelligence and wisdom are enough for us and that we no longer need God…[v]
And attractive as they may be, these gods are NOT Yahweh – not gods who have delivered a people in an Exodus or offered a covenant.[vi] And worshipping these gods means that we are not focused on what God want -- love and justice in our relationships. We work harder at avoiding the homeless seeking handouts than helping the poor. This is our default way of living in the world.
(Start growing in intensity and volume to end of paragraph) And sometimes we embrace a surface deep religion that tells us that we are all loved by God – without telling us the expectations that go with that. A surface religion that promises peace of mind or focuses on “the power of positive thinking,” to keep things all pleasantly G-rated while the God of “divine discontent” must be some divine version of weeping or angry at how time and time again we put God in a corner and go on to what John Wesley, founder of Methodism, called “pride and desire of life,” and we show up on Sunday looking for God to somehow BLESS IT!
But God sends us a roadmap for a different way of living. This Covenant-making, Covenant-keeping God invites us into a relationship to deliver us, again and again, from our selfishness and sin. Not just from slavery in Egypt, but to lead in a pillar of cloud and fire in the wilderness, showering manna and quail to feed hungry people, the Ten Commandments with fire and smoke from a mountain, and an Ark of the Covenant as a visible sign of God’s presence among them. Remember the stories? And then, in the fullness of time, in Jesus.
ACTUALLY, 613 Laws that show God’s expectations of us -- in the middle of stories that remind us of who it is that is giving us these laws. It is the God who saw us in our bondage, took pity on us, delivered us from bondage and is carrying us to a place where everyone will have enough to eat and land of their own – THAT is who is giving us instruction on how to live. And the Law isn’t something outdated or relegated to the Hebrew Scriptures or superseded by the coming of Jesus – Jesus confirmed the importance of the Law. Because it gives life – and he came that we might have life, and have it abundantly – remember?
We can read the Scriptures, and particularly the Torah, the books of the Law, so that we are reminded that we don’t have to settle for the kind of life that is the prevailing one in our culture. We hear, and remember, that we are created by one who loves us – who wants the best for us – and so offers us some guidelines on how to live the best life possible. And yes, this way of living is out of sync with the way most of the world works. God is offering us an alternative way of understanding, and living, life.
The Yoked Way of Life. To find a way to live in strong relationship with God, perhaps the metaphor of a YOKE will help us. Jesus talked about this – “Come to me all you who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest. Take my YOKE upon you, and you will find rest for your weary souls.” YOKE metaphors show up in the Hebrew Bible too…
A YOKE was a farm instrument – we can still sometimes find them at estate sales, or agricultural history museums or on a wall at Cracker Barrel. They had a long top bar and two collars to hold most commonly two oxen , but sometimes also horses, together to pull as a team. They almost seem like magic. Two draft horses that can each pull 8,000 pounds can pull 24,000 pounds working together – more than their combined totals, and if they are trained together they can pull 32,000 pounds.[vii] MUCH more when yoked as a team!
This idea of a YOKE may help us understand something about the LAW and Freedom. Yes, there are some restrictions when we are connected to God – but there is also amazing freedom. We just choose to walk on a path – a narrow, rather uninhabited path as it often seems. BUT Jesus invitation to “come to me..” is an open one – no one would be compelled to come – and yet, to fail to do so would be to miss the opportunity of a lifetime. Once that invitation is taken, the LAW, the Torah, comes with it.
The invitation also comes in community. The Ten Commandments weren’t given to Moses for his individual, or even family, use. They were given to the community. And we hear them in community – we seek to follow them in community, and it is the community that holds us accountable when we break them. Serving one God together build unity -- strengthens community. It’s important to think of the LAW as a compass – something that provides us direction to walk in God’s way. More of a compass and less as specific rules for all time – after all, times do change. We have to consider what was the likely meaning behind the laws. While the Ten Commandments seem to still hold most of their applicability, other laws seem to have been written for a different worldview: dietary restrictions, rules about blood and body fluids, etc. We just understand germs and such differently.
But the LAW of God as a way to yoke ourselves, connect ourselves, with the one who has created us, delivered us, who guides us along our journey – this offers a way of living with greater possibilities. If we choose to live in relationship – which means obedience with God -- we will be stronger and have more endurance yoked to the All-Powerful God. “Our freedom is lost if we refuse to don the yoke of worship and obedience” to Yahweh.[viii]
Psalm 119 was obviously written by someone who took delight in God’s Law. The writer had found God’s law to be the way that led to life and blessing. Law was integrated throughout the life of this writer. He – probably he – knew that hope could be found, no matter what happened in life, by living in connection to God. Yoked to God, he was bound but also free.[ix] The LAW points out the way to be obedient to God’s will so that life will be better for us and for everyone. Lives lived in connection with God, yoked with God, provide stability for us and for the communities in which we live. And offer us the way of life, and life abundant.
Let those who have ears to hear – LISTEN!
[i] Walter Harrelson, The Ten Commandments and Human Rights.” Philadelphi: Fortress Press, 1980. p. 3.
[ii] John Killinger, To My People with Love: The Ten Commandments for Today.” Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1988. p.13.
[iii] Sara Orne Jewett, The Country of the Pointed Firs. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc. 1994. First published in 1896.
[iv] Killinger, 13-14.
[v] Ross W. Marrs, Be My People: Sermons on the Ten Commandments. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1991. p. 22-23.
[vi]New Interpreters Bible, volume 2 (Exodus), 843.
[viii] Michael Williams, Storyteller’s Commentary on Exodus, 84.
[ix] Paraphrased from Harrelson, 185.