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Sounds like the Ten Commandments are in trouble. Not really. And the reason they are not is that the Ten Commandments are the bedrock of justice. God did not pass these on to Moses as a way to keep us in line; rather, these words were a gracious gift to help us get along together in healthy society.
John Killinger tells a story about a village that, through one tragedy after another, had land mines planted everywhere. One night, one of the elders had a dream that showed where they were all located. He drew a map that showed the villagers where not to go. They cherished it and memorized it. That map is like the 10 Commandments...they tell us what to avoid...those actions, attitudes that would blow us and our world apart. (1)
So saying, a good deal of misunderstanding has burdened the interpretation of the Decalogue. It starts with this word Commandment - we do not like to be "commanded." But if we go back to the very beginning of the text, we find God saying, "I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery." God does not start by giving the Israelites rules. "I AM" starts by loving them, by freeing them from slavery and getting them out of Egypt. Then and only then can the Israelites know that this God deserves to be listened to. This God is on their side and is helping them find the good life. (2) These are not LAWS - they have no penalties attached for breaking them. In the Hebrew Bible, they are known simply as the TEN WORDS - God's words for the establishment of the kind of society in which we would all like to live.
That misunderstanding continues when folks try to divide the ten into two tables: the first group (1-4) for dealing with God; the second (5-10) for dealing with one another. The truth is that ALL of them are about creating a just society.
Take them one at a time. 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 and a just society.
Look at the "other gods" people choose in our day. There is the great god MONEY that has caused so much dissatisfaction in life because of the mad dash to acquire more and more, and these days, the terror that comes in the mail with your 401K statement. Money? It's gone. Or look at what the god BUSINESS has done...family, friends, church, loving relationships all lost because too much time and effort has to be expended to keep up with the competition that has just moved operations offshore anyway. Or good old Bacchus - the ancient god of PLEASURE... thousands dead every year on America's highways because of drunk drivers; thousands of young Americans hooked on drugs; a world-wide AIDS epidemic. "You shall have no other gods before me...not for my sake, but for yours; those gods can ruin you and your just society."
The second command: no idols. What has that to do with justice? Simply that people can be misled into thinking the representation of god is the REAL god. Now, please understand that the people of the ancient world were not stupid - as they would sit down to carve the wood or stone, they knew that what they were creating was a REPRESENTATION of deity, one that helped them get in touch with something beyond "touch." If the crops would begin to dry up for lack of rain, the people could come to the idol and make their prayer. If an enemy were laying siege to the town, they could come to the idol and call for deliverance. Of course, those early theologians knew that the statue could not answer prayers, but it was comforting to have something visible and touchable there, to represent what they were convinced was the larger reality.
But as with so many things that we human beings do that start out in perfect innocence, it does not take long for that kind of reverence to degenerate. Think of the idol-maker's little children. When times were rough and the crops needed help or the enemy was about to storm the gates, the youngsters saw Daddy go in and talk to that statue. Hmm! To the immature young mind, there would be no distinction between the idol and the god it was supposed to represent - the image would BECOME God. "NO idols." People become confused and are misled into trusting things that are not worthy of trust. Ultimately, that is unjust.
Commandment #3: "You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God." Or in the language of the King James Version, "You shall not take the name of the Lord your God IN VAIN." More misunderstanding here. No, despite what your grandmother told you, this is not a rule about not using God's name as an expletive. And no, that billboard we see occasionally that purports to have God saying, "If you keep taking my name in vain, I'll make rush hour longer," is not right either. Once more, this is a justice issue. In the old 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. The command could have just as easily read DO NOT DEFRAUD as DO NOT MISUSE MY NAME.
Number 4: "Remember the sabbath day and keep 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. Again, the issue is social justice, and the point is a just society does not oppress it's work force. "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.
I am sure you noticed in that list of all those who are not supposed to work on the sabbath, there is no mention of mother. For the one who has had to get the breakfast, the kids, the dinner, and herself ready to try to make it to church almost on time, this is hardly a day of no work. But then, the scripture never said it would be...not for Mom. The Bible never expects the impossible.
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?" Again, God's concern is justice. As you have heard before, 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 just society would be removed and ALL generations would be at risk.
Number 6: "You shall not murder." This one is difficult to misunderstand. No just society can tolerate the willy-nilly taking of life.
Strange as it may seem, Number 7 covers a social justice issue too: "You shall not commit adultery." Illicit sex is not the concern here; rather, who owns the property. Please understand that the biblical definition of adultery is very narrow - it does not paint with the broad brush of meaning any sex outside of marriage. The biblical concept of adultery refers to a man having sex with another man's wife. The problem comes from subsequent children this woman might have: whose kid is it? 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 commandment is DO NOT ADULTERATE THIS FAMILY UNIT by introducing some "foreign" element into it, and creating a mess in determining who is family and who is not. Justice.
Number 8: "You shall not steal." Another no-brainer. Under the category of the things I learned in kindergarten. Social justice demands that people respect one another's property.
Nine: "You shall not bear false witness 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. If you go into court, God says tell the truth. A just society is dependant upon a trustworthy legal system to resolve disputes.
And finally, Number 10: "You shall not covet." Huh? How can we not? Isn't this asking the impossible? Not really. At least not if we read the whole commandment. It mentions some specifics...house, 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 leads to problems, and none that a just society can tolerate.
It intrigues me that our Lectionary on this third Sunday in Lent joins this lesson with its concern for justice to the gospel account of Jesus running amok in the temple. Jesus starts kicking over tables, smashing cages, yelling, screaming even.
Bluntly put, Jesus has a temper tantrum, a hissy fit. I know how you would react if I started overturning the pulpit, dumping the font, upsetting the communion table, and hurling offering plates and flowers at you. SHOCK! Just like the disciples, no doubt. First, they would try to calm Jesus. Then to restrain him. Finally, as cattle and merchants stampede for the exit, they would cower in the corners, expecting an attack helicopter to come roaring around the corner with missiles firing. The chaos probably resembled Wall Street after the Dow-Jones takes another 500-point beating (which, by the way, is probably another place that would have infuriated Jesus). (3)
If there were ever any question what that scene meant, joining these lectionary passages together should clear it up. The issue that day in Jerusalem at the beginning of Passover was justice. Jesus saw serious INjustice being perpetrated on innocent worshipers.
People were needing animals and birds for sacrifice, "without spot or blemish," and the only place they could get them so they would pass inspection would be within the Temple precincts. No problem...except for price. For example, a pair of doves (heavily involved in the sacrificial system), outside the Temple, might cost the equivalent of about a day's average wage. INSIDE the Temple, the doves could cost twelve-and-a-half times as much...two weeks wages instead of one day's. Airport prices writ large. Unjust? Obviously!
As to the moneychangers, their function was to change the coin of the realm into the shekels used by the Temple. For ordinary purposes, the coins of Greece, Rome, Syria, Egypt or other countries might be used. But for the annual Passover tax, only the shekels of the sanctuary were valid. The moneychangers made the conversion...for a fee. And the fee could amount to another half-day's wage, an exorbitant amount under any circumstance for just making change, but even more so when we remember that the worshipers were, for the most part, poor people. And they were being grossly ripped off in the very place they should have been the most safe...God's house. Unjust!
The message in all this is that our God cares about justice, and if the example of Jesus is to be emulated, righteous indignation in the face of INjustice is our duty as disciples. Our ministry is not only to comfort the afflicted. We are also called to afflict the comfortable - to kick tables and butts, to free doves and prisoners, to dump ill-gotten gains and outdated dogmas. Even if it makes some people cower in the corners.
Can we be angry?
Can we be angry that a nation which prides itself on providing "equal justice under law" provides it depending on the color of a person's skin or how much money he or she can afford to pay a decent lawyer? Remember, God cares about justice.
Can we be angry about the perpetuation of a system that offers medical treatment, not on the basis of need, but on the basis of how much money someone has? The people who have no money and the people who have a lot of money get care - those in the middle may not. Washington is talking about that lately, but they have been talking about it since Harry Truman. Should we be angry about that? Remember, God cares about justice.
Can we be angry about a society which allows a ready supply of deadly weapons to almost anyone with the result that, of all the technically advanced nations of the world, we have an exponentially higher murder rate than any other? Remember, God cares about justice.
Can we be angry when women, though working every bit as hard as any man, still face discrimination, abuse, harassment, and unfair pay? Remember, God cares about justice.
Can we be angry when white collar criminals in corporate board rooms pay themselves fat salaries and bonuses, looting companies into bankruptcy, and leaving workers and retirees to fend for themselves? Remember, God cares about justice.
One final caveat: in the midst of our righteous anger, we do well to remember that, of all the places where Jesus could have pointed out injustice, he did it among those involved in "religious" endeavors - people like you and me. God cares about justice.
Can we be angry? Angry enough to take up a whip, if needed, to try to bring some cleansing? We should be angry enough to do something about it. Jesus was and Jesus did. Remember, God cares about justice.
1. John Killinger, To My People with Love, (Abingdon, 1988) quoted by Bass Mitchell, via Ecunet, "Sermonshop 1997 03 02," #71, 2/26/97
2. John Alexander, "God's Love" in the journal The Other Side quoted by Jane Flaherty, via Ecunet, "Sermonshop 1997 03 02," #149, 2/28/97
3. From Ralph Milton's RUMORS, 3/8/09, a free Internet 'e-zine' for Christians with a sense of humor.