By the Rev. Darren Miner
There is an old American saying: The third time is the charm. It means that sometimes it is necessary to do something three times before getting it right. Well, that saying would seem to apply today. We began the service with the Penitential Order, which includes the recitation of the Ten Commandments (also known as the Decalogue). Then—lo and behold!—we get them again in the reading from the Old Testament. Well, guess what, folks! You are going to get them a third time in the sermon.
The Ten Commandments have an important place in Anglican thought. Our tradition teaches that, while many of the commandments in the Old Testament are no longer in force, some, including the Ten Commandments, are still very much in effect. The prayer book goes so far as to say that in the entire Old Testament “God’s will for us is shown most clearly in the Ten Commandments.”
These Commandments were inscribed on two tablets of stone. And when you see modern-day representations, you find five commandments on each tablet. Well, I wasn’t there, so I can’t possibly say if the original tablets divided the commandments 50-50. But I can say that thematically, the split is more like 40-60. More specifically, the first four commandments deal with the community’s relationship with its God, and the last six commandments deal with relationships within the community itself.
In the first commandment, the Israelites are told that they must worship one God and only one God. (Now, they are not being told here that other gods do not exist; they are just being told not to worship them.) Like the Jews, Christians are also monotheists. We worship one God. But unlike the Jews, we worship one God who exists in three divine persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Next, the Israelites are told not to manufacture and worship idols. Now, we know from the Bible and from archeological discovery that the ancient Jews broke this commandment on a regular basis. Christians theologians have debated whether Greek Orthodox icons and Roman Catholic statues of the saints violate this commandment. Frankly, I worry more about whether Christians in America have made an idol out of money!
The third commandment is not to misuse the Name of God. One school of thought is that this commandment is prohibiting making oaths in God’s Name. The other school of thought is that it is prohibiting the use of his Name in magical spells and amulets, a common practice in many ancient societies. For us today, it is best to keep this commandment by not using the name of Jesus Christ as a form of swear word!
Then, we get to the commandment to keep the Sabbath holy. For Jews, this commandment is not seen as a great burden, but as a great joy. It is a day to put away all work and to devote oneself to rest, refreshment, and reconciliation with one’s God. Now, to be technical, almost all Christians are Sabbath-breakers. For one thing, the biblical Sabbath is Saturday, not Sunday, and most of us are busy on Saturdays with a whole variety of chores. Early on, the Christian Church transferred its Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday. And for many years here in the United States, businesses were closed on Sunday. People were expected to go to church and then to devote the rest of the day to godly pursuits. Well, folks, those days are long gone!
At this point, the Ten Commandments turn from the Israelites’ relationship with God to the relationships between its members. They, and we, are told to honor father and mother. In particular, we are expected to provide them with food and clothing and shelter when they are in their old age, and we can expect the same from our children when the time comes—at least that’s the theory! In Asian culture, this commandment is deeply engrained. Not so with American culture! Our tendency is to put our parents in nursing homes when they can’t take care of themselves and to visit them “when we get the chance.” After all, we are very busy people! You can guess what God thinks of that attitude.
We, like the ancient Israelites, are prohibited from committing murder. Now, this commandment does not prohibit all kinds of killing. It does not prohibit killing during war. It does not prohibit capital punishment. Later, however, Jesus goes on to prohibit not only the taking of a human life in anger, but violent anger itself.
The Israelites were prohibited from adultery. More specifically, Israelite men were prohibited from having sexual intercourse with the wife of another man. To be honest, it was seen more as a violation of another man’s property, than an act of sexual impropriety. Christian tradition, however, has extended this prohibition to both men and women, and the violation has been understood primarily as a violation of the sacred covenant of Holy Matrimony.
Next, we are told that stealing is just plain wrong, and it is strictly forbidden. Keep this in mind the next time you are tempted to steal a towel from a hotel! As an aside, the accumulation of great wealth was seen by our ancestors in the faith as a form of stealing. St. Jerome put it rather succinctly, “Every rich person is a thief or the heir of a thief.” Again, something to think about!
The ninth commandment is against bearing false witness. This commandment clearly prohibits spreading malicious gossip. But more importantly, it prohibits giving false testimony in court. The point here is that all societies need systems of justice that function fairly. That is impossible if people lie under oath. So God quite rightly forbids it. We can only hope that the bureaucrats in Washington DC remember this commandment when the time comes for them to testify under oath. It is one thing for Hope Hicks to admit to telling “white lies” to the press to curry favor with the President. It is another thing entirely to lie to a grand jury about issues of national security.
Finally, we get to commandment Number Ten, the commandment against coveting the belongings of our neighbor. God is not forbidding us to wish to have nice things like our neighbor. It is OK to want a new car or a new smart phone like the guy next door. What is forbidden is obsessive desire, the kind of desire that leads to plotting and scheming to acquire that bit of our neighbor’s property that we admire so much.
Now, let me end this overlong sermon with an announcement just for the ladies in the congregation. You are free to forget everything I have just said. You are even free to forget the Ten Commandments themselves. As the original Hebrew makes perfectly clear, the Ten Commandments are addressed only to men. Having said that, I think it would be pleasing to God if you did try to remember the Ten Commandments and to keep them. But that’s really for you to decide!
© 2018 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.