The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger


Delivered 3/19/06
Text: Exodus 20:1-17
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

In the current issue of The Christian Century, Tom Long, who teaches preaching at Candler Seminary in Atlanta writes about our lesson.(1) He says, "Something's missing in the current culture war over the Ten Commandments. I knew about Judge Roy Moore, the now-removed chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court who waged and lost a stubborn fight to keep a Ten Commandments monument in his courthouse. What slipped past me is just how much this monument of his weighs: 5,280 pounds, or just over 500 pounds per commandment."

"Judge Moore has been lugging this hefty monster around from one public appearance to another on the back of a flatbed truck. Joshua Green, writing in the Atlantic Monthly, notes that whenever the truck returns to Alabama, 'a 57-foot yellow I-beam crane that spans the ceiling of the Clark Memorials warehouse drops down to retrieve the Rock from its chariot, and even this one - a five-ton crane! - buckles visibly under the weight.' I know that Jesus once scolded the Pharisees for neglecting the weightier matters of the law, but somehow this I-beam-bending version of the Decalogue seems way out of proportion."

Tom is looking to make a serious point, of course. In the popular religious consciousness, the Ten Commandments have somehow become burdens, weights and heavy obligations. We remember when that incredible "Mouth of the South," Ted Turner, the creator of the Cable News Network, declared some years ago that the Ten Commandments were obsolete. He told members of the National Newspaper Association in Atlanta that they do not relate to current global problems, such as overpopulation and the arms race. "We're living with outmoded rules," Turner said. "The rules we're living under are the Ten Commandments, and I bet nobody here even pays much attention to 'em, because they are too old. When Moses went up on the mountain, there were no nuclear weapons, there was no poverty. Today, the commandments wouldn't go over. Nobody around likes to be commanded. Commandments are out."

Well, nobody talks much about Ted Turner anymore, but the Ten Commandments? That's another story. You have those billboards that have popped up next to major thoroughfares that say things like, "If you keep taking my name in vain, I'll make rush hour longer," or "What part of 'Thou shalt not' don't you understand?" and they are signed simply GOD. Granted, most surveys that ask about the Ten Commandments find that the vast majority of folks say that the Decalogue is still valid for today, even though the majority of those who say that cannot name even five of the ten.

One wag has said, "Everybody looks for different things in the Ten Commandments. Some look for Divine guidance, some look for a code to live by, but most of us are looking for loopholes."(2) Perhaps. It is true that many folks think of the commandments as rules for on personal behavior. "THOU SHALT NOT..." Others consider them shackles placed on a rebellious society. For both groups, a two-and-a-half-ton rock sitting on the bed of a truck is a perfect symbol. Have we forgotten that the gods of Babylon were heavy idols that had to be trucked around? "These things you carry," the prophet Isaiah jabbed, "are loaded as burdens on weary animals."(3)

Understanding the Ten Commandments as a set of burdens overlooks something essential, namely that they are prefaced not by an order - "Here are ten rules. Obey them!" - but instead by a wonderful announcement of freedom: "I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery." We will probably always refer to the verses that follow as the "Ten Commandments," but we can also think of them as descriptions of the kind of life that is typical when we have been truly liberated. These are not really LAWS - they have no penalties attached for breaking them. In the Hebrew Bible, they are known simply as the TEN WORDS - God's words describing a way of life that guarantees, to coin a phrase, "liberty and justice for all."

Go through the list. The first commandment: "You shall have no other gods before me." On it's face, that sounds like the plaintive cry of a god who is afraid of being ignored or supplanted, like a teenage boy who is terrified that his girl friend might dump him - a pretty wimpy god. But this is not about God; this is about US. "I am the Lord your God, the one who freed you to live life to the fullest. You do not need any other." You do not need the great god MONEY that has caused so much dissatisfaction in life because of the mad dash to acquire more and more, to keep up with the Joneses and never quite making it. You do not need the great god BUSINESS with family, friends, church, loving relationships all lost because too much time and effort has to be expended to keep up with the competition. Nor do you need good old Bacchus - the ancient god of PLEASURE - who ends up accepting the sacrifice of how many dead on America's highways because of drunk drivers, how many hooked on drugs, how many afflicted in the world-wide AIDS epidemic? No, you need no other gods than the one who has given you freedom, certainly not those gods who would take it all away.

The second command: no idols. You do not need them. The god who has liberated you is not about to abandon you when you are in need. You do not need to carve a hunk of wood to show off to your neighbors what a neat God you have. You do not even need to carve a 5000-pound chunk of granite, because, quite frankly, some people will end up worshiping THAT and doing themselves and their neighbors more harm than good. No. No idols.

Commandment #3: "You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God." Or in the language of the King James Version, "Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God IN VAIN." Be careful of misunderstanding this one. Despite what your grandmother told you and that billboard to which we referred earlier, this is not a rule about not using God's name as an expletive. This is one more description of a truly liberated life. You see, in bygone days, people would, in the conduct of normal business, swear by the name of God that they would do this or not do that. Such swearing was the equivalent of a guarantee that this verbal contract would be carried out. Unfortunately, people being people...and egregious sinners at that...folks would be tempted to engage in such promises knowing full well that they had no intention of following through. Fraud. God says NO. People knowingly defrauding one another is not part of a truly liberated life. The command could have just as easily read DO NOT DEFRAUD as DO NOT MISUSE MY NAME.

Number 4: "Remember the sabbath day by keeping it holy." No, this has nothing to do with being in synagogue on Saturday or church on Sunday. It does not mean no ball games, no picnics, no fun, as some of us were taught. This is not an insecure deity's way of insisting that we set aside some "God" time. Instead, this is one more word of freedom. The God who has liberated you is the same one who wants to give you and yours a break. "Six days you shall labor and do all your work." Then TAKE A BREAK! And not only you, but everyone who works for you - your children, your slaves, your day laborers, even your livestock. Freedom!

Commandment #5: "Honor your father and your mother." Does that mean be nice to them? Don't talk back? Keep your room clean? Never let them have reason to complain, "You never write; you never call?" As you scholars know, the ancient world understood children to be the basic providers of social security. When parents got too old to manage, the children (who were all living there anyway - several generations would be under the same tent) would provide the care. If that system broke down, a crucial underpinning of a liberated society would be removed and ALL generations would be at risk.

Number 6: "You shall not murder." This one is difficult to misunderstand. No decent society, liberated or captive, can tolerate the willy-nilly taking of life.

Number 7: "You shall not commit adultery." Each week a New York youngster would bring home from Sunday School an illustrated card that dramatized one of the Ten Commandments. The first week showed people worshiping at church. Another week, to illustrate "Thou shalt not kill," the picture showed Cain in the act of slaying Abel. The child's father reports: "I was waiting with considerable alarm for the seventh week. But fortunately, tact and delicacy prevailed. Under the caption, "Thou shalt not commit adultery" was a picture of a dairyman, leering villainously, as he poured a huge pail of water into a can of milk.(4)

That's good because, perhaps surprisingly, illicit sex is not the primary concern here. You see, the biblical definition of adultery is very narrow - it does not paint with the broad brush of meaning any sex outside of wedlock. The biblical concept of adultery refers to a man having sexual intercourse with another man's wife. The problem comes from subsequent children this woman might have: who's your Daddy? That becomes a major concern when passing on property from one generation to the next: it is harder to keep the property in the family when there are conflicting claims about who fathered the heir. The word is DO NOT ADULTERATE THIS FAMILY UNIT (just as an unscrupulous dairyman might adulterate the milk) by introducing some "foreign" element into it, and creating a mess in determining who is family and who is not.

Number 8: "You shall not steal." Another no-brainer. Under the category of the things I learned in kindergarten. The God who has given you freedom has given your neighbor freedom as well, so a truly liberated life will find people respecting one another's property.

Nine: "You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor." No, this has nothing to do with simply telling lies about someone or gossiping across the back fence. This one is about the court system. Even in a liberated society, disputes will arise. If you go into court, God says tell the truth. A decent and just society is dependant upon a trustworthy legal system to resolve conflicts.

And finally, Number 10: "You shall not covet." This is another one that is wildly misunderstood, and the reason it is is because folks do not read the whole thing. Read the rest...and note the, wife, slaves, ox, donkey, property in general (and, yes, back in those days, wives were considered property). The prohibition is not all-inclusive. It does not say that we are not to want things - food for our babies, a decent home for ourselves, the money to pay for school for our kids. It is FINE and even NOBLE to want all that, but it is NOT fine, and certainly not noble, to set our hearts on what rightfully belongs to someone else. That is why I have such problems with a federal budget that cuts funds for medical research, health care, education, anti-poverty programs, and takes away the food stamps from 300,000 kids while taking that money and giving it plus billions more to the one-percent of the American people who make above $400,000 per year. This Robin Hood-in-reverse approach of taking from the poor and giving to the rich is nothing less than immoral. The word about not coveting is an affirmation that the things that sustain life belong to all, not only a favored few.

It was Boxing Day, December 26, 1989. Romania was in turmoil. The previous day, President Nicolae Ceausescu, unable to quell the tide of dissent in Bucharest, had been tried and executed. Now no one was in charge. Western reporters flooded into the country from the south, searching for someone who could speak English. Finally they found someone, and in one sentence she summed up not only Romania's predicament, but the human condition: "We have freedom," she said, "but we don't know what to do with it."(5) That was God's gracious purpose in giving the Ten Commandments to Israel - they were free now. This would be how to handle the freedom.

Tom Long says, "If we want to symbolize the presence of the Ten Commandments among us, we would do well to hold a dance. The good news of the God who set people free is the music; the commandments are the DANCE STEPS of those who hear it playing. The commandments are not weights, but wings that enable our hearts to catch the wind of God's Spirit and to soar."(6) Listen and live.


1. "Living by the Word," The Christian Century, March 7, 2006, p. 17

2. James S. Hewett, Illustrations Unlimited, (Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc, 1988), p. 456

3. Isaiah 46:1

4. Hewett, p. 457

5. David F. Wells, "God Spoke These Words," The Christian Century, 3/15/00, p. 301

6. loc. cit.

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