Remembering Who(se) We Are
Today we are beginning a series of sermons on what we call the Ten Commandments. In last week’s sermon, I held that it is well to begin thinking about these great words by thinking about the God who offers them up. I suggested that God is of higher and deeper mystery than any words of description we might use, even words of the Bible. Nonetheless, there is in such words, insight into the God we worship and serve.
These Ten Words (as Hebrew calls them) are first mentioned in Exodus 20. They begin: “And God spoke all these words: “I am the LORD your God who brought you up out of the land Egypt out of the house of slavery.” It is God, the gracious liberator of slaves, who speaks. We rarely think of the privilege it is to be the creatures addressed by God, but so we are. God has brought this “mixed multitude” (as Exodus 12 uniquely but tellingly calls them) from bondage in a great and powerful empire to the foot of a mountain in a great and powerful wilderness. God now addresses the people through Moses their leader. The words that are here recorded are among the most famous in the Bible.
As we begin this series, I would like to say that our framework will not be what these words once described, or when they were written or compiled into the present Book of Exodus. Rather, my primary interest at this point is how we may read and use them today. Of course, the two topics are related, but my interest is clearly the present not the past. The people of God have long interpreted these ten words, as ten rules that, if people want to remain the people of God, they’d better keep. Whatever that may mean. In this series I want to read these words, not as rules, but as principles that summarize areas of behaviour resulting from accepting a covenant relationship with God, such as God was offering to unite that mixed multitude of Israel into the People of God.
When Jesus was asked about the Greatest Commandment, do you remember what he answered? He said that folk were “to love God with all that is in them” (from our Old Testament Lesson in Deuteronomy 6), and “to love our neighbours as intensely and with as much care as we do ourselves” (Leviticus 19). For those who follow Jesus this is Policy from headquarters. The Ten Commandments come along and give us principles or ideals through which covenant partners with God through Jesus can live the intense love of God and the intense love of neighbour. I’ll say more about love in a few moments.
These Ten Words describe, as well, outcomes from choosing to accept a covenant relationship with God. Indeed, we should think of each of these ten statements as prefaced by the words: “If you choose to accept this covenant I am offering, then…e.g., you will have no other Gods before me.” The words “choice” and “choosing” are important. These outcomes are not automatic, but demand choices. Nonetheless, given the choices, these words describe the outcome of normal covenant life in relation to this wonderful, liberating, mysterious God. In this they are similar to what Jesus’ Beatitudes and Paul’s fruit of the Spirit are about: normal life with God.
The Hebrews, as I have said, were brought from slavery to freedom out into the middle of a great and terrible wilderness. They were free of Pharaoh and anyone like him to dominate them, all right, but, here they were in the wilderness nonetheless. What would they do? Whom would they follow? Whom would they serve? In other words, by what values would they, could they, should they live, since value free living, like value-free education is a figment of somebody’s imagination. Every choice is freighted with values.
Pharaoh’s system of values from which Israel was now free valued conspicuous consumption of goods produced by nameless “others,” and forced production by those “others” to meet the goals of more and more consumption (another name for slavery). This God of liberation invited them to a different set of values there in that great wilderness. There will be many other words that will be offered to describe life in relation to this God of Liberating Mystery as Israel’s story continues, but these are a summary of them all. If we simply look at the form of these words, and forget how we’ve always been taught to take them, they are neither commands nor prohibitions. They are, mostly, simply negative statements in what passes for the Hebrew future tense. They are not, on this reading, God’s commandments, but are rather, Israel’s commitments.
Having said this (again) about the framework of these Ten Words and how we’ll read them together, let’s get on to what God meant by saying, “If you choose to enter this covenant relationship with me, the outcome will be that you will have no other gods, literally, ‘in my face.’” In ancient covenants it was common for the king who made the covenant to say, “If you live in covenant with me, you must never cast your eyes to another.” This is not the only place that this covenant with God parallels other ancient covenants in Israel’s wider world.
A common misunderstanding of these words is that they forbid belief in the existence of “other gods,” as if their point were the philosophical or religious conclusion that there is one God, not many. There is no doubt that Jews by the time of Jesus held this belief, but not at this point. What this text both says and means is that such “other gods” were, rather, irrelevant for people who accepted God’s covenant, not because the idea of many gods was factually wrong, but because to place any other in God’s face was to adopt the values of that other god. The gods of the Egyptians, and other empires as well, were really but symbols of empire-values that dehumanized folks that Israel’s God said were made in the divine image. Again, the most common of these values were conspicuous consumption, production as the goal of human existence, and coercive power to make people perform and conform to the status quo. To be in covenant with Israel’s God meant that these “gods,” these values, were simply not relevant for people who knew Whose they were. The values of conspicuous consumption, production, and coercive power to get our way did not only apply in the ancient world, but are alive and well among us, in the West especially. God says, “Get out of my face!”
Our Deuteronomy Lesson begins with words that most Jews in the world have memorized in Hebrew. “Hear, O Israel, the LORD is our God, the LORD is one.” Deuteronomy 6 goes on to say, in different words, what the first commandment meant by “no other gods in my face.” “You will love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” You will love this God with everything in you, and there is only enough love to do this for one. Remember, that in the culture of the Bible, “to love” did not primarily mean “to have a warm feeling (even an overwhelmingly passionate feeling) about God.” To love meant to “embrace socially,” “to associate with,” and “to show loyalty toward” openly and in public life. Those who love God have God’s values as their own publicly. There isn’t room for competing loyalty, because that’s to buy into competing values. Next the Deuteronomy passage says that, if you are in covenant relationship that you keep the words (that is, loyalty), teach the ideas to a new generation, talk about the words in many settings (that is, interpret and find new ways of applying them) in a public way.
“Bind them on your hands and heads, write them on your doorposts.” We can read these words at least couple of ways, either woodenly, and end up with written ancient words stuck on our heads, hands, and doorposts, or we can understand the words to be saying, make God’s values a part of your deepest selves. In understanding whose we are, we come to understand who we are. I choose the figurative way of understanding these words and commend the practice to you as more difficult, but more rewarding and long lasting than repeating words.
The Epistle Lesson from James further encourages this second path of understanding. In James’ community, apparently, there were those who said that faith meant simply repeating the ancient words and making others to subscribe to certain ways of understanding them in order to be “in” the community. Although this is not the only or best way to understand the word “faith,” James reacts to the misunderstanding of it as merely repeating old words and statements and confessing, “We Believe!” He contrasts this with living God’s values as a practical, daily matter. He uses the example of the one who is concerned about those who have no home or food, and so wishes them well, (“be warmed and filled”) or even prays for them. And James isn’t very nice about this here. He actually says, in pretty blunt Greek, “What’s the use of that?” It is useless to satisfy oneself that mere words (even uttered in prayer) that say we embrace God’s values are enough. What is needed is action according to these values we embrace (or “love”). Mere confession of our so-called faith is dead. At one point James says, “You believe that God is one? (Remember that’s how our passage in Deuteronomy 6 began.) “Dandy,” James says, “Even demons believe that – they believe it fervently – and are terrified.” James says that we need to make sure that what we say about God works itself out in action. If we say that we have no other gods in our God’s face, then we’d better demonstrate it by living in ways that are consistent with God’s values. Words alone are not enough. Jesus said, “By their fruits you will know them” (Mt. 7:16). We learn who we are by what we do, and what we do is determined by whose we are and whose values shape us.
All this could lead us to worry about our lives. In our Gospel Lesson from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus started by restating of “no other gods in my face,” when he said, “No one can serve two masters.” He contrasts God and “mammon,” an Aramaic word for “possessions.” Jesus talks about choosing the wrong master, the old gods of Egypt, of wealth and prosperity and driving ourselves to get them. Jesus contrasts this with choosing and serving the right master, living in covenant with the God who still liberates slaves from all kinds of harmful values. He says having the wrong master will drive us to worry. Of course, this isn’t just talking about garden variety worry, we need to read the context carefully and understand that this kind of worry worries about building bigger and better and having more and more in this world. Here are those other gods that compete with our loyal embrace of the God of Liberating Mystery. Jesus reminds those who would be his disciples that having no other gods does not mean having not a shrine in our bedrooms where we secretly worship a little statue, it means that our ultimate values are not acquisitive and we do not serve the gods of “more and more” and “never enough.” Choosing the right master means that we learn who we are through a clear understanding of Whose we are. Jesus says, “Get them out of my face.”
The First Commandment is really a primary commitment. “If you choose to enter into this covenant relationship that I am offering to you, says God, the first outcome will be your understanding that all of your goals and values are determined by coming to know the God who begins by liberating you, as has happened for millennia, and will continue to show you much more. To commit to becoming the People of this God and no other means that the outcome of a change in values only becomes our own as we cooperate with the spirit of God. So, Commitment One: “No other gods in my face.”
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, AMEN.