Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 3, 2024

Exodus 20:1-17 Commentary

Must Be Important

Here we are, less than 6 months since the last time this text came up in the lectionary reading cycle.  You can find my previous commentary here [Mary, can you add hyperlink?] At the least what we should consider when a text comes up more than once in a calendar year is that it is important.  Indeed, there are several indications in the text that this is the case.

For example, one of the great advances the Hebrew people had over other religious and cultural groups is that, while in Egypt, they learned the technique of making parchment paper and writing with ink.  In this way, they could be either more efficient with their time or more explanatory in their content. So it is notable that, instead, these commandments are etched in stone. Robert Alter elaborates, “The Hebrews did, however, use stone tablets for monumental inscriptions, as a few recovered fragments indicate. The use of stone tablets (the medium will be mentioned later) is most probably dictated by the fact that these Ten Words amount to the text of a pact between God and Israel, and such covenantal texts were typically recorded on tablets of metal or stone.”

Legislating Morality?

“You can’t legislate morality,” or so the saying goes. But, of course, the subject of these 10 Commandments are rules in themselves and have lent themselves to guidance in the churches and laws in the public sphere.  Blue laws against alcohol sales on Sundays may evoke a by-gone era in some parts of the country but I venture a guess that we would like our country to keep murder on the naughty list.  Churches have fought for centuries – notably during the Reformation – over a) what constitutes an image and b) what it means to worship such a thing.

So it is interesting to consider the 10th commandment in that light. It is unique — certainly among the outward facing final half of the commandments — in that it seeks to regulate desire, not action.  Even the first half of the Decalogue is, for the most part, demonstrable in human action.  We know what disrespecting our elders looks like.  We might hear someone use the Lord’s name as a swear word or, more problematic still, using the Lord’s name to justify reprehensible actions.  But what does it look like to covet? And why tack that onto the end of an otherwise fairly concrete list of sins?

The Africana Bible Commentary suggests this: “The final prohibition against coveting is at the root of these other transgressions, so the final commandment speaks to regulating not just the outward behavior but our heart. In this way, it directs us back to the first command to have nothing and no one before God. God is the primary relationship, and God is the primary point of reference. The extent to which we uphold this will determine how we live in community with one another.”

In a sense, the first and tenth commandments give us a foreshadowing of Jesus’ answer to the question of the greatest commandment.  Or, perhaps, that is anachronistic. Jesus – raised in Judaism – learned the greatest commandment from the first and the tenth, which were already being short-handed in the book of Deuteronomy. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Life Between Slavery and the Promised Land

In his commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, Comfort and Joy, Andrew Kuyvenhoven offers a reflection on the placement of the 10 Commandments.  Notice that the law was not given to God’s people while they were still slaves in Egypt.  They were not given as a strategy to earn their liberation or as a quid pro quo.  But neither does God wait until the people have entered the Promised Land, as though our obedience along the way doesn’t matter or that, since we will be perfected in the life to come, why bother reflecting that goodness in the here and now? “Between our redemption from the bondage to sin and our arrival in the land beyond the Jordan, we travel by the road map of God’s law. God’s law is the guide for our pilgrimage.”

Old Testament scholar Ellen Davis might add that the wilderness served a purpose in the lives of God’s people.  The wilderness was where Israel shed the habits of their slavery and began to take on the responsibilities of their new life. After 400 years of slavery, they needed every hour of those 40 years to untangle their identity as slaves and to begin to live as God’s chosen and redeemed people. This insight certainly begins with the 10 Commandments but, of course, is born out in all the other regulations and experiences of God’s people between Egypt and the Promised Land.  As Kuyvenhoven asserts, “In both the Old and New Testaments, freedom is not only a freedom from but a freedom to. We are free from bondage, from Egypt, from the guilt and power of sin, to obey the Lord.”


Any devotee of the romantic comedy genre will recognize these two words: Make-over Montage. From George Bernard Shaw’s play adapted into musical form – My Fair Lady – or Anne Hathaway’s Princess Diaries, we delight in new hair styles, the right make-up properly applied, trading in those coke-bottle glasses for contacts. Even our super hero/action fans understand this trope as Clark Kent morphs into Superman with what seem like only the most minimal, shallow cosmetic differences. But, of course, the shift is far more than skin deep.  Eliza Doolittle spends months on elocution lessons, marbles in her mouth, “the rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain” and all that.  We love to watch Anne Hathaway’s posture and etiquette transform under the tutelage of Julie Andrews’ “princess lessons.”

Though we may delight in watching movie scenes of ordinary women becoming royalty, we find it much harder to be ordinary people, made in the image of God, being remade in the image of God-made-flesh in Jesus Christ. The whole of the Christian life is a make-over montage and maybe, just maybe, seeing it that way might infuse our diligent obedience with a bit more delight.


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