For those who want a change from the Gospel
Lent 3 – Exodus 20:1-17
Today’s passage is a very familiar one – what generations of Christians have called ‘The Ten Commandments’. But familiarity can breed contempt, and it can lead us to believe that we understand the passage fully. On one level, of course, understanding isn’t really the point – we just have to obey these commandments if we want to please God. But as always, to place this particular few paragraphs in their wider context will help us to see more of their richness.
The context, as far as our lectionary is concerned, is the idea of Covenant – this is the third OT covenant we have looked at during Lent. We have said that covenants are agreements between two parties, one stronger than the other, and that they are usually mutual, although the first, with Noah, was entirely one sided in that it was about what God would do for the human race, with no quid pro quo back the other way. This covenant is clearly different: God would be their God if they lived in these kinds of ways. But let’s put that idea in a bigger context. If these words are about what the people have to do, look at what God has already done. He has heard the cries of misery of the enslaved people; he has called Moses to set them free; he has revealed his divine name to the people, and through a series of mighty acts he has led them out of slavery, opened the Red Sea, and destroyed utterly those who would still be out to get them. It is also interesting that the preface in v.2 begins ‘I am the Lord your God’. This is crucial: the people do not keep these laws so that they can be in a relationship with God: they keep them because they are already in a relationship with God.
Secondly, though, let’s have a look at the words used here. Interestingly the word ‘commandments’ isn’t used anywhere in this passage. In the Hebrew they are simply the ten ‘words’. We might appropriately translated this as ‘teachings’, not commandments. And of course when you think about it, how can you command someone to love? Rather than being the hard and fast legal commandments we have thought them to be, these are much more like wise teachings for the smooth running of society. Actual Laws come later. These teachings are the basis of their covenant: God has done all this for you, he has become your God, so it would make good sense for you all to live like this.
As Christians there are clear parallels here, which St Paul is going to explore at length in his writings. As Christians we are not saved because we do what Jesus wants us to, or more specifically we don’t do what he doesn’t want us to do. We live in a particular way because of what Jesus has done for us, because of the relationship which he as initiated. I don’t pick up my dirty socks from the bedroom floor in order that I can be married to my wife: I do it because I have come to discover over the years that that is what she likes me to do, and my greatest aim in life is of course to please her. Paul is insistent that we are not saved by keeping the Law, even if we could, but because of what Jesus has already done.
But of course Paul then has to go on and answer the question ‘So what’s the point of the Law at all?’ His answer is twofold. The Law shows us how bad we are, and it stops us being worse. If there was no Law, we couldn’t break it. We could do exactly what we liked. Before March 18th 1935 there were no speed limits on British roads, so it was impossible to be nicked for speeding. But as soon as it was introduced, it was possible for people to break the law and become criminals. The Law suddenly showed people that they were sinners. But it also stops us being worse. Many people drive at 80 or 90 on British motorways because the legal limit is 70. But if there were no speed limits: well, suffice to say that I once got up to 125 on a German autobahn. We might break the law, but not as much as we would if it wasn’t there.
These Ten Teachings, therefore, are not there to show us how to enter into a relationship with God. They are there to show us what pleases him in the organisation of a society run with wisdom, love and care. And of course Jesus upped the stakes considerably when he expanded the Law to include what we thought as well as what we did. Without these Teachings, which, interestingly form the basis of the Laws in many many countries of the world, we would all be a lot worse, but even as we are we need a Saviour. No way could we do all this alone, and no way could trying to do so earn us God’s favour.