Accept No Substitutes
The text of what we call the Ten Commandments is found in the midst of the story of Israel’s liberation from Egypt by a mysterious God whose name sounded something like the Hebrew word “I Am,” or “I Cause to Be,” or even “I Am Present.” The story continues from Egypt, through a miraculous crossing of the Sea into the wilderness to Mount Sinai where “I Am” invited a mixed multitude of Hebrew folk to unify around a covenant. If this people chose to enter into this covenant there were ten commitments that God expected of them. These were also ten outcomes that would result from living within covenant with this God and with one another. The first commitment was absolute loyalty to the One who had liberated them and offered them the covenant. No other gods with their competing values were allowed. Ever. Period. Following closely on the first commitment, and linked integrally to it, is a second:
4You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5You shall not bow down to them or worship them.
Like the third, fourth, and fifth commitments, this one adds a sentence or two explaining the rationale behind the words. Such sentences were rather common in ancient law and covenant documents, but, since, when the two tablets with the Ten Words were restored to Israel (after Moses broke them at the incident of the Golden Calf), the words were simply: “You will not make cast idols” (Exodus 34:17), this so-called motive-clause (that begins with “for”) was likely an addition to the text in Exodus 20. In any case, it underlines the first commitment: “No other gods (that is, no other value systems) in my face.” In the Bible the unfortunately-translated word “jealous,” used of God here, simply meant that God actively resisted attempts by covenant partners to have other gods, values, and loyalties.
These words “no idols” probably meant that the Hebrews were not to make for themselves, first, images of other those gods they weren’t supposed to have anyway, and, more importantly, of this the God of the covenant (again, witness the problem that happened when they did, in the story of the Golden Calf later in the Book of Exodus). It is a slippery slope that descends from fashioning images to worshiping them.
Can we find a rationale for this business of, literally, “no image, and any representation…of anything…in heaven, on…or under the earth”? We could say that the short answer is because God said so, but that hardly ever satisfies. In our Old Testament Lesson, set as Moses’ preached word to a new generation of Hebrews before going into Canaan, he said that there are to be no images of God because that is how God was revealed at Sinai, with words, but with no visual image. No visual image could capture God. It was improper for covenant partners to trespass God’s own self-revelation by making an image of God the Creator using anything God had created. The evidence of God’s person for them was the their own experience of liberation by God and a daily experience in covenant relationship. To be open to such an “imageless” God required covenant partners who were insightful, flexible and adaptable.
But what can it mean for us to commit to such a thing? Most of us don’t think much about making images of God in any other terms than making little statues, and we don’t do that much. It’s easy to commit not to do something we had no intent of doing anyway. So, is that all there is? Some Jewish and Christian traditions (and Muslim, too, for that matter) have read these words as forbidding appreciation for and use of the visual arts in worship and places set aside for worship. That is a caricature of these words and really not what they either say or imply. We need more art in church, not less. So what does it mean for us to come to this commitment?
What this text is really saying is “Don’t accept or settle on substitutes for God.” Seek relationship with the real one. We make an image of God and bow down to it every time we make an absolute claim for anything that is simply a piece of the world around us, whether we ourselves made it, it was made by our ancestors, or even if we believe it was created by God. When we do any such thing we lower God to the level of a created thing and accept a substitute for the reality of God. Although it might be argued that it is easier to have a god one can see – that was certainly Israel’s argument for constructing the golden calf – it is not the design of the Bible’s God to make things easy. God is not one more thing that can be fashioned by humans, even though humans continue to try thus to make it easy for themselves. To do so reduces the mystery and the freedom of this God of covenant and also requires less insight, imagination, flexibility and adaptability in covenant partners.
The scriptures are full of examples of kinds of images we construct that make absolute claims for relative things. The next verse after the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20, interprets the commitment to no images in an economic direction. “You will not make gods of silver alongside me, nor will you make gods of gold” (20:23). Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea and other prophets counsel great caution about making golden or silver gods and amassing wealth. The tendency is to show off wealth by making expensive gods that will then be expected to “repay the generosity.” In the verse that follows the prohibition of gold and silver idols, (I think on economic grounds), the God of the Universe says, “You need make for me only an altar of earth…” We all know how easy it is to make acquisition the ultimate concern (or god) of life. And one doesn’t need to be wealthy to do it.
Our other two scripture lessons for today give quick examples of kinds of images we can construct for God and, so substitute what is created for the creator. In our Gospel Lesson from Mark 12, Jesus resisted the temptation to set up a political substitute by involving himself in the debate about paying taxes to the emperor. He made is clear that, in this world, although everything really belonged to God, there were things of which the emperor had charge. Don’t confuse God and the emperor. Don’t set up a political substitute for God. This is not an ancient issue. Before long, election rhetoric will ramp up, and before you know it there will be those who claim that God is on the side of their political views and our national interests. Alas, some Baptists, for whom the separation of the things that belong to the emperor and the things that belong to God is supposedly a foundational principle, will use all sorts of holy words to explain why God is on our side, dividing Americans one from another. By making absolute claims for a political system that was built by mere people we fashion a substitute for God. Remember that we are dust. The graven image of our own politics makes a lousy god.
We can make do even worse. The Acts Lesson comes from a sermon preached by Stephen, a Greek-speaking Jew who confessed Jesus as Messiah. He has just preached through some high points of Hebrew history, and now, so to speak, goes to meddling. He contrasts the Tabernacle with the Temple as places of worship, and actually argues that Solomon made a mistake when he built a permanent place for God’s dwelling. At one point he actually quotes Isaiah 66:1-2:
The Most High does not dwell in houses made with human hands; as the prophet says, “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of a house will you build for me, says the Lord or what is the place of my rest? Did not my hand make all these things?
God is not trapped in The Temple (and one might argue, though Stephen did not, the Tabernacle), but transcends both. They both become examples of making absolute claims for relative things, and thus, accepting a substitute god. Making religious idols is a deadly procedure, and common in our own day. The Most High does not dwell in particular ways of worship, or particular doctrines, or particular denominational and church structures, or one translation of the Bible, or even the Bible itself any more than God dwells in houses made with human hands. When religion or right doctrine becomes what we worship rather than God, we have built for ourselves the most pathetic and dangerous idol of all and accepted a substitute god of our making. When Christian faith goes from a life to be lived to a system to be defended, we also lose our ability to learn anything new and to grow in our faith as we learn of this God of Mystery.
We could go on, but I think we’re busted. This commitment is relevant for contemporary life. But it’s easy to stay negative. Indeed, most of the ten commitments are phrased negatively. Why? Would it not be better to be positive? Of course. A reason why these words are set negatively may be to make clear what is outside the circle, so that we can be insightful, creative, innovative, flexible, and adaptable in finding positive ways to live using the resources of the scriptures as interpreted through our reason, tradition, and experience. These ten commitments are Principles and General Outcomes, not specific commands. God leaves this for covenant partners to determine and apply in their own particular cultures and times.
As Paul began the section of the Epistle to the Romans dealing with the Christian life, he wrote, in Chapter 12, verse 1:
1I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.
Paul urges followers of Jesus to present “your bodies,” by which a good Hebrew would mean “yourselves,” to God wholly and sacrificially (we might see in that a paraphrase of “no other gods in my face”). Don’t simply do what you’ve always done by accepting culture as ultimate value, but experience transformation by allowing your innermost thoughts and motives to be changed to those of God in Christ, to the end that you will be able to discern the right way forward in God’s world. To be transformed by a new mind requires nothing less than those words I’ve used several times today to describe covenant partners: insightful, creative, innovative, flexible, and adaptable using resources of the scriptures, our reason, our tradition and our experience. As we’ll sing in just a moment: “And it’s from the old I travel to the new, Keep me traveling along with you.”
In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.