Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 8, 2023
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20 Commentary
Textual Comments, Observations and Questions:
Some commentators believe that these brief excurses (v. 5-6 and 10-11) signal a later addition to the original text, which could substantiate the lectionary compiler’s choice to excise them from the reading this week. However, getting down to just 10 commands out of all the attitudes, postures, words and actions that people of faith should and should not adopt is already a remarkable feat. In fact, in the original Hebrew, commands 6-8 are each only two words long: don’t murder, don’t adultery, don’t steal. I will treat all 20 verses, regardless of the lectionary’s choice to further abbreviate a text already reduced to its essentials.
The text begins with an introduction, “I am the Lord your God,” a literary convention typical of a royal announcement as though to answer the natural questions, “Why should I?” Or “Who says so?” In this address, God not only identifies Godself by name, God goes on to remind the people what God has done on their behalf, thereby evoking their loyalty.
In addition to being a God who showed up concretely in history on behalf of a chosen people, God is also identified as eternal, with the invocation of “heaven above or on earth beneath or in the waters below.” On the point, Robert Alter adds that, in addition to being a God of history, “here the language implies that He is equally the God of the cosmos, not limited to one of its realms.” This is a great point of contrast to the gods of the Ancient Near East, who typically had a jurisdiction (the heavens, the earth, the waters.) God’s reign is eternal and God’s jurisdiction encompasses all of creation.
The fourth commandment to keep the Sabbath uniquely embodies and puts into practice what the previous commandments have told us about God. We rest because God is God of creation and, a generative act of God’s creation is rest. And we rest — and give rest to our workers, animals and vulnerable populations — because God is a God of history who liberates enslaved people.
The fifth commandment demonstrates a pivot from the first table of the law, which is concerned with how we are to love God, to the second table of the law, how we are to love our neighbors. Because we respect God’s authority, we are respectful toward the authorities established in human relationship as well. You might observe as well that this is the only command written in the positive (i.e. “thou shalt” rather than “thou shalt not.”) You might encourage the congregation to consider what it would sound like for all the commands to be written in the positive. After all, our obedience is not only defined by what we don’t do but is also characterized by what we do, how we act, speak and behave. Here Jesus’ redefinition of the commands in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) is especially instructive. Perhaps you can even reach backward to last week’s epistle reading, Philippians 2:3-12, to demonstrate the positive aspect of the law.
The sixth command uses a Hebrew word that intends a morally culpable action, rendering more recent translations’ preference for “murder” more accurate than the KJV’s use of “kill”. With regard to this command and the subsequent prohibitions of adultery, theft, lying and coveting, your congregation may be well served to wonder together at the positive aspects of these laws. Rather than what we are to avoid (and perhaps some will think it’s easy to avoid these “big ticket” evils) how do these prohibitions invite us to do rather than to avoid doing? For example, while we certainly want to avoid the specific action of adultery (sexual unfaithfulness in marriage), how do faithfulness, fidelity and purity exemplify themselves in the lives of all those (married and unmarried) who want to follow God’s law?
A Theology of the Law
As New Testament Christians, we can hold a bit of disdain for or confusion about the law — isn’t this what Jesus has saved us from?! But, surely, as Christians, we are to be committed to obedience and right living and this top ten list seems like a perfectly reasonable list of expectations so how does that work? John Calvin famously posited three uses of the law that apply for Christians today:
- The law helps us to appreciate the character of God … and the way we fall short of it. This is called the pedagogical use of the law. It teaches us what Paul says in the letter to the Romans: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) In this mode, the law functions to drive us into the arms of a Savior who can offer forgiveness.
- The law provides a measure of wisdom for the ordering of a just society. The civil use of the law suggests the ways that governments can legislate to reduce injury and promote flourishing. Although this use of the law does not require that everyone bow the knee to Jesus as Lord or worship God, it does assume that the creation has a Creator and that, therefore, this Creator can be trusted to write a reliable “users manual” for this world.
- The law offers a picture of how we can honor God with our lives. Building out from the foundation of these 10, we can imagine how God might want us to act or speak in the unique situations of our everyday lives. The normative use of the law shows us how we can live out our gratitude and praise for the salvation we have freely received and it anchors our discernment for the ethical and moral questions of our day.
There are several good, contemporary paraphrases of the 10 Commandments for different audiences, for example, this one focused on school-age kids.
Intergenerational Ten Commandments
From Carolyn Brown’s Worshiping with Children website:
God is God – even at school!
God is more important than anything
– even grades or friends
Always say God’s name respectfully and represent God carefully.
Don’t get too busy for church and rest
Speak to and about those in charge with respect.
Don’t hurt anyone
watch where you sling your book bag and
Look out for the younger kids
Be a loyal friend
Respect your body and other people’s bodies too.
Do not steal
either other people’s stuff or the answers on their work
Don’t tell lies about other people
either to get them in trouble or make yourself look good
Don’t get jealous of what others have or what they can do.
Consider including this in the worship service or at the end of the sermon, with an encouragement/prompt for church members to take time to reflect on “where the rubber hits the road” for them regarding each of these commands.
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