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About Everything you need to know about The Ten Commandments in about Ten Minutes

A sermon preached the Third Sunday in Lent (March 8, 2015)
The Rev. John Ohmer, Rector,
The Falls Church Episcopal, Falls Church, Virginia

Because the Old Testament lesson appointed for this Sunday is the passage which gives us the Ten Commandments, and because we recite the Ten Commandments at the start of our worship service during the season of Lent, today is as good a time as any to take another look at the Ten Commandments.

And so the title of this sermon is “About everything you need to know about the Ten Commandments in about ten minutes.”

The first thing we need to know is -- as I said in my e-news article,

The first and most important thing to remember is that the first commandment begins NOT with a commandment at all, but with a reminder:

“I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.”

It’s only then – only after God reminds us of his nature as one who desires our freedom – does God say, “don’t have (don’t worship or put at the center of your life) anything or anyone else other than me, the god of freedom.”

A second thing to remember about the first commandment is that nowhere in the first commandment does it say there are no other gods. Ancient Israelites knew there were dozens, if not hundreds of gods. What the first commandment says is “The Lord God is the god of freedom, the others aren’t – the Lord God will love you back, the others won’t -- so why would you give other gods your allegiance, your loyalty…why would you have other gods as your own?!”

The second commandment is against idolatry.

Because God is mystery, there’s a human tendency to try to reduce God to something we can see and touch and move around and control. To try to domesticate God.

Now granted, we tend not to make actual golden calves any more. But if we’re honest about it, we have dozens of idols, things we idolize…if not carry around, at least carry in our hearts, and are devoted to: bow down to, if you will. We tend to idol-ize things like work, relationships, causes, hobbies, money, popularity and success. Those things can in fact become idols…things that take the place of God at the center of our lives.

Work, relationships, causes, hobbies, money, popularity, and success can be good and even God-given things. But they’re bad gods. Bad centers.

So we follow the commandment not to make for ourselves any idols by thinking of those things as love notes from God, remembering we aren’t supposed to fall in love with the love note – become idolatrous – but with the author of the love note, the giver of those things.

The third commandment, against taking God’s name in vain is not a prohibition against swearing or cussing: the ancient Israelites wouldn’t even pronounce God’s name, let alone use it as a cuss word, whatever that would’ve meant or means.

This commandment is recognition that invoking God’s name has power, and we should take that power seriously. It is a prohibition against invoking, or calling upon God for selfish or harmful or hateful reasons – using God’s name for one’s own purposes.  It’s the violation of this commandment, I’ll bet, that had Jesus so upset in the Gospel appointed for today [John 2:13-22, Jesus throwing the money changers out of the Temple] – there was a sacrificial system set up so that one had to have a certain kind of animal paid for with a certain kind of coin which had to be exchanged with a certain person…and each step, there were profits to be made and people being exploited…in God’s temple, what Jesus called his Father’s house, a place supposed to be set aside for worship. That system was exploiting access to God, and was a mis-use of God’s name, taking God’s name in vain.  

The fourth commandment, to keep holy the Sabbath day is probably the most blithely ignored of all the commandments, especially in this part of the world.

I heard of someone being interviewed on the radio, an author who has written a book on the “art of slowing down.” At one point in the interview he said that we ought to find a way, as a culture, to slow down, all of us – and that as part of that effort, perhaps we could set aside, say, one day a week, to do nothing…it would be a…let’s call it a “day of rest,” he said, in which people would do no work…!

Yeah, why didn’t God think of that?!?

It’s not a coincidence that this commandment is a positive commandment: if we obey it, if we keep it, it frees us from the false god of work, the bondage, the trap, of defining ourselves by what we do for a living.

Keeping holy the Sabbath Day – resting, really resting one day in seven, is meant to remind us that we DO what we do, but we are not what we do.

One day is seven God wants us to rest, really rest, and surrender the illusion of control and be creatures, not creators. A day of rest reminds us that God’s job description has already been filled!

Honoring the Sabbath means setting aside one 24 hour time period to rest—to let go and let God.

The fifth commandment – to honor your father and mother – has not just an individual aspect to it, but a societal one.

Family life is the bedrock on which Jewish life stands. As parents, God’s people were (and are) responsible to teach their children concerning the covenant. Furthermore, biblically speaking, just as society is to be measured by how it treats the orphans, widows, and poor, biblically speaking, a family is to be measured by how the elderly are treated. Today, however, driven by a multibillion dollar advertising industry, youth drives almost everything. Now it’s not a bad idea to honor youth, but in this commandment we have a reminder that young age is not the age to which the Bible gives the greatest honor. It’s our elders, and the wisdom of our elders. So this commandment frees us from the idolatry of “newer and younger is always better.” Honor your elders.1

I’d like to tie the next two commandments (the sixth: you shall not commit murder, and the seventh: you shall not commit adultery) together in this sermon because combining those two commandments is what Jesus did in his sermon, the sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5).

In both of these commandments there’s the first and most obvious level: don’t physically kill another human being and don’t physically have sexual intercourse with someone other than the person to whom you’re married.     

But that’s only the first and most obvious level. In his sermon on the mount, Jesus raises the bar:  

“You have heard that it was said ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

Killing and adultery -- and the commandments against them -- are not as simple as what we happen to do physically.  

It’s possible -- and even probable -- that most of us will live our entire lives without pulling a trigger or stabbing someone, actually physically killing someone.

But angry thoughts?  Getting really mad at someone?

And many people live entire marriages without actual physical involvement with another person.
But a wandering eye? Fanaticizing about someone?

When interpreted that way – Jesus’ way -- I don’t know anyone who can keep these commandments.

Not to mention the socially acceptable adultery we commit on our spouses but when our mistress or lover is not a person, but the office, work. Or email, or television, or golf, or whatever it is that robs a marriage of time together, affection, conversation,  and closeness.

The root of murder is anger, and the root of adultery is loneliness leading to lust.
Jesus knew that the roots of physical murder and physical adultery are in the heart. So that’s why, when we hear these commandments, we say not just “Lord have mercy on us,” but also “incline our hearts to keep this law.”

The eighth commandment: Do not steal.

Again, we’ve oversimplified it and boiled it down to something like “do not shoplift.” But again, looking at the commandments in the light of the first commandment, and remembering that all commandments are meant to release us from slavery, and give us freedom, this commandment – along with the 10th against coveting -- can be seen as an antidote to the false god of wealth, consumerism, over-consumption, defining ourselves by what we have or own. It’s a commandment against greed.

Listen to what St. Basil the Great said in his Sermon to the Rich

“Who is a man of greed? Someone who does not rest content with what is sufficient. Who is a cheater? Someone who takes away what belongs to others. And are you not a man of greed? are you not a cheater? taking those things which you received for the sake of stewardship, and making them your very own?

“Now, someone who takes a man who is clothed and renders him naked would be termed a robber; but when someone fails to clothe the naked, while he is able to do this, is such a man deserving of any other [name]?

“The bread which you hold back belongs to the hungry; the coat, which you guard in your locked storage-chests, belongs to the naked; the footwear mouldering in your closet belongs to those without shoes. The silver that you keep hidden in a safe place belongs to the one in need. 2

“You with a second coat in your closet, it does not belong to you. You have stolen it from the poor man who is shivering in the cold.” 

Lord have mercy upon us and incline our hearts to keep this law!

Ninth commandment is do not bear false witness against your neighbor.

Here we tend to boil it down again, and think of it as “don’t lie while under oath.” But there are countless opportunities for us to make this commandment applicable in our everyday life. We can see this commandment not simply a prohibition against lying under oath (although it was) but as one commanding us to avoid exaggeration, bravado, overstatement.

What if we heard this commandment as “You shall not innuendo…You shall not talk behind someone’s back…You shall not spread rumors…You shall not gossip.” ?

And so like the others, this commandment meant to liberate us from negativity.

Finally, the tenth commandment: Do not covet. It can be an antidote to the false god of comparing ourselves to others and what others have. It is meant to free us from the temptation to keep up the Jones’. It’s meant to free us from envy, from jealousy, from not being content with what we have because we are comparing ourselves and our stuff and our children to other people’s stuff and children.  

The psychologist and author Brene Brown writes a lot about the burden of comparison (here in her book Daring Greatly, quoting another author, Lynne Twist),  

“For me, and for many of us, our first waking thought of the day is “I didn’t get enough sleep.” The next one is “I don’t have enough time.” Whether true or not, that thought of not enough occurs to us automatically before we even think to question or examine it. We spend most of the hours and the days of our lives hearing, explaining, complaining, or worrying about what we don’t have enough of. ...

“Before we even sit up in bed, before our feet touch the floor, we’re already inadequate, already behind, already losing, already lacking something. And by the time we go to bed at night, our minds are racing with a litany of what we didn’t get, or didn’t get done, that day. ...This internal condition of scarcity, this mind-set of scarcity, lives at the very heart of our jealousies, our greed, our prejudice, and our arguments with life.” 

The commandment not to covet is the antidote to that dynamic, that shortage mentality. And so this commandment addresses not so much a deed – something we do – as a disposition. It is a commandment of the heart as well as of behavior, and so it is especially appropriate that we say, “incline our hearts to keep this law.”

So I hope you have a better understanding of why I said,
1)  If we can understand and follow the first commandment, the other nine come easily and
2)  The first Commandment begins NOT with a commandment but a reminder that God is a god of freedom,
3) these commandments can be seen as gifts from God as reminders of how we can live most freely…

Lord have mercy upon us and -- for our own joy and happiness -- incline our hearts to keep these laws.

1. Insights in this paragraph indebted to (actually, paraphrased from!) Walter Harrelson, The Ten Commandments and Human Rights
2. See

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